Corzine wants lower toll hikes

September 30, 2008 5:57:12 PM PDT
Gov. Jon Corzine said Tuesday that he's open to approving toll increases to fund transportation improvements, but the potential hikes will have to be more modest than what's been proposed. Corzine on Tuesday ordered the Turnpike Authority to scale down its plan to raise $11 billion in revenue by raising tolls on the Turnpike and Parkway three times over the next 15 years, said agency Chairman Kris Kolluri. The money would be used to widen the two roadways and partially fund a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, among other projects.

"I want to have a minimal increase matched against what is absolutely essential for public safety and congestion, and that maximizes how we can create jobs today," Corzine said after a television interview on Tuesday afternoon.

The governor ordered Kolluri to pare the agency's $480 million operating budget, in part by instituting a freeze on hiring and promotions and reducing the work force through attrition.

Corzine also promised to review the agency's plan for transportation improvements and make sure the agency is being run efficiently before approving a toll-raising proposal.

"I had a chance to talk to the governor today," said Kolluri, "and, based on our discussion, it is now our obligation as a board to come back to him with an operating budget reduction plan along with a proposal to scale the capital program back to meet our critical congestion and safety needs."

As currently crafted, the proposal calls for three toll increases over 15 years. However, after three public hearings and more than 1,400 written comments, transportation officials began reconsidering the proposal.

Kolluri said options will be laid out during a just-added fourth public hearing on the proposal, scheduled for Oct. 10.

The current proposed increases would begin with a 60-cent hike on the average Turnpike trip next year, followed by a 90-cent increase three years later and a 30-cent increase in 2023. On the Parkway, the average trip would rise by 15 cents next year, 25 cents more in 2012 and 8 cents on top of that in 2023.

At public hearings on the proposal this month, officials heard everything from support for the increases to disdain. Kolluri said the written comments have been running 2-1 in favor of the proposal.

A more sweeping toll hike previously proposed by Corzine failed to gain public or legislative support and was shelved. That plan would have raised tolls 800 percent to fund transportation improvements and pay down half the state's crushing debt.

However, the governor has said it is essential to move ahead with needed transportation improvements, including the new rail tunnel. New Jersey risks losing billions in federal matching funds if it does not secure funding for its share of the tunnel soon.

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