Public hearings set on plan for NJ toll hikes

September 10, 2008 8:44:40 AM PDT
As the New Jersey Turnpike Authority set public hearings on a plan to increase tolls on the state's two major highways, Gov. Jon S. Corzine on Tuesday sought to assure a skeptical public that the proposed toll hikes are not a done deal."They're not a foregone conclusion until we've reviewed and looked at the capital plans and seek to find what I believe ought to be a minimal imposition on the public at this time of national recession," Corzine said. "We're going to listen to the public also."

Republicans and others condemned the plan as an unnecessary burden for struggling Garden State families.

But the Democratic governor said the Turnpike Authority needs an infusion of funds to be able to meet its existing debt, ensure public safety, improve mass transit and fund projects like the widening of the Turnpike and Parkway.

The authority has proposed raising tolls to pay for about $11 billion in improvement projects, including the roadway widenings and helping to fund a new rail tunnel into Manhattan.

The proposal calls for three toll increases over 14 years, starting next year.

A $1.20 Turnpike toll would increase to $1.80 next year and a 35-cent Parkway toll would increase to 50-cents, under the proposal. Tolls last went up on the Turnpike in 2000 and on the Parkway in 1989.

Republicans were quick to blast the plan.

Former Rep. Dick Zimmer, who is running for U.S. Senate against Sen. Frank Lautenberg, criticized the proposal for failing to pay down state debt or replenish the depleting state Transportation Trust Fund.

A prior plan floated by Corzine to do those things by drastically raising tolls was withdrawn when it received no legislative or public support.

Zimmer and Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. said they would use $500 million from existing motor vehicle agency fees to fund transportation needs. That money, currently part of the state's general fund, is included in a $1.3 billion cost-savings plan the Republicans put forth in May.

Corzine rejected the proposal as "make-believe math."

Transportation and environmental groups also criticized the toll-hike plan Tuesday, saying the proposed increases, coupled with the need to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund within two years, are too much for commuters to bear.

And, Republican Sen. Leonard Lance, who is running for Congress in the 7th District, accused Corzine of hiding behind the Turnpike Authority to "ram a toll increase down the throats of middle-class commuters."

Corzine dismissed the opposition, especially by Republicans, as typical partisan criticism.

"Are those people telling us we should default on our bonds?" Corzine asked. "Are those people telling us we should turn our backs on public safety? Are those people telling us we should walk away from building a mass-transit connector that services the broad needs of the state?"

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority plans to hold three public hearings on a plan to increase tolls on the state's major highways to fund transportation improvements.

The hearings are set to take place on Sept. 23 and 24, in the north, south and central parts of the state.

The public will be able to comment in writing or by e-mail until Oct. 1, Turnpike Authority spokesman Joe Orlando said.

The hearings are a necessary step before the authority's plan to hike tolls can be finalized.

The governor would have to sign off on the increase.

The hearings schedule is on the authority's Web site. CLICK HERE for more information.

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