Corzine hits road to pitch hiking tolls to fix state finances

January 12, 2008 5:55:07 PM PST
New Jersey governor John Corzine has a tall order in front of him: trying to convince residents that increasing tolls is the best way to pay off the state's debts. Saturday, Corzine held the first of 21 county public hearings in Livingston New Jersey in Essex County. Corzine pitch increasing tolls on some of the nation's busiest highways for decades to come to get billions of dollars to pay state debt and fund transportation work.

"The state is pretty much broke," Corzine told about 900 people jammed into Livingston High School. The Democratic governor has promised public meetings on his plan in all 21 counties, and he held his first in Essex County.

Corzine has proposed increasing tolls 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022, and those increases would include inflation adjustments. After 2022, tolls would increase every four years until 2085 to reflect inflation.

The Atlantic City Expressway, Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike would be affected, with tolls added to Route 440.

In the next 10 years, the average toll would go from $1.20 to $5.85 on the turnpike, 35 cents to $1.60 on the parkway and 50 cents to $2.40 on the expressway. Route 440 would get a 35-cent toll.

After a 50-minute presentation by the governor, Meredith Knoll of Montclair wondered what was being done "at every level to eliminate wasted dollars," while Bud Booth of Westfield found fault with Corzine using tolls to solve statewide fiscal problems.

"It's wrong to stick all of this on the toll road users," Booth said.

Ralph Walker of Bloomfield said he lives a quarter-mile from the parkway and issued a similar worry.

"If you want to make it fair for the entire state, why not include roads that touch every county?" Walker asked.

Walter Levine of Livingston said he backed paying debt and funding transportation.

"It would be acceptable to me and most other taxpayers if they knew the funds could not be used for other purposes," he said.

Corzine engaged in a largely polite conversation with his audience, and many residents asked about issues unrelated to Corzine's fiscal plan.

"I'm actually pleasantly surprised that there was less vehemence," Corzine said.

The governor wants to use money from increased tolls to pay at least $16 billion in state debt and fund transportation projects such as bridge repairs, widening toll roads and a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

State debt has doubled since 2000, costing about $3 billion this year, or about 10 percent of the state budget, just to pay off debt. That cost is going to increase each year and make it hard for the state to pay for existing programs, let alone create new ones, Corzine said.

A recent report found New Jersey is the fourth-most indebted state.

Meanwhile, the state's fund for transportation projects will run out of money in 2011.

"This is not, like, the most fun thing to do, and certainly isn't a political platform that I'm particularly anxious to be advocating, but you've got to have options," Corzine said.

Corzine wants to create a nonprofit corporation that would manage toll roads. It would issue bonds, which would be paid back with increased tolls.

He also plans to freeze state spending, limit future spending growth and require voters to approve additional borrowing.

The governor estimates the deal could earn up to $38 billion, letting the state eliminate nearly $30 billion in toll road and state debt. An analyst from Moody's Investors Service called it "the largest and most ambitious leverage of a toll road asset in the U.S. so far."

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which has about 159,000 members nationwide, said the plan will put an "enormous burden" on highway users and truckers.

"This will not make the state more competitive in the global marketplace," said Mike Joyce, an association spokesman.

The parkway is the nation's busiest toll road and the turnpike the nation's fifth busiest, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

The state's three toll roads carried 748 million vehicles in 2006.