Turnpike Authority approves toll increases

October 10, 2008 6:05:52 PM PDT
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority has voted to approve increases on the state's two major toll roads to fund transportation projects and help pay for a proposed rail tunnel into New York City. The unanimous vote by authority commissioners on Friday came about two hours after Gov. Jon S. Corzine gave his approval on the toll proposal, which had been scaled back from a previous plan.

Corzine recently indicated that he would not have approved the initial plan, which called for three toll increases over the next 15 years.

The plan approved Friday raises tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway in December and again in 2012, at which point the cost of driving the full length of either highway will be more than double its current level.

Drivers on the turnpike will see tolls rise an average of 50 cents per trip this year, to $1.70, and an additional 90 cents in 2012.

Parkway drivers will see an average increase of 15 cents this year and 25 cents four years later.

Tolls last went up on the turnpike in 2000 and on the parkway in 1989.

The plan will give off-peak discounts to E-ZPass customers who are senior citizens or drive fuel-efficient cars.

In a separate action Friday, the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the Atlantic City Expressway, also approved toll increases. Tolls will increase between 50 and 60 percent, depending on the location.

The toll hikes are expected to raise $205 million for improvements to the highway and Atlantic City International Airport.

The authority added an extra discount for trucking companies that pay more than $10,000 per month in tolls. They will receive a 10 percent discount, or 5 percent more than was initially proposed.

Turnpike Authority Chairman Kris Kolluri said Friday that Corzine added his voice to those of the trucking industry and the State League of Municipalities in support of the added savings.

"The league wanted to make sure the trucks stay on the turnpike where they belong, and the trucking industry and the governor made a very strong case about why, in the middle of this economy, you would add an additional burden," Kolluri said. "We thought it was prudent to keep them on the turnpike and give them a large-volume discount."

The cost of the discount program is $12.8 million a year, which Kolluri said will be funded through agency budget cuts.

Opposition to the increases came from many quarters. Some of them were represented at the public hearing held Friday before the authority's vote.

Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association, which represents truckers in New Jersey, said the increases will hurt trucking companies already fighting high gas prices and a weakened economy.

"If you're paying $8 extra per truck and you have a fleet of 100 trucks, that's an extra $800 per day," she said. "How many small businesses can absorb that?"

The cost of an average truck trip on the turnpike will increase $2.05 this year and $3.75 in 2012. A full-length truck trip on the turnpike will increase from $26.55 currently to $56.85 by 2012.

Dennis Brady, a Matawan resident, said he has seen traffic increase steadily in his neighborhood as commuters seek to avoid toll roads, and envisioned the situation worsening.

Some of the most pointed comments came from Zohar Laor, 39, a software engineer from Edison who works in Eatontown.

"Just because you can go home and look in the mirror and say, `I didn't raise it as much as I could have,' that doesn't let you off the hook," he told Kolluri.

Kolluri defended the increases and said they would be used to fund $373 million in bridge and road improvements by the end of the year and about $1.3 billion in work by the end of June 2009.

"If you ask anybody who sits in traffic on Friday, Saturday or Sunday or on any weekday at the turnpike merge, I think they'll be the first one to support it," he said. "Politicians and people like me have promised these projects for over a decade, and it's time to make good on our promise."

Kolluri said widening of the turnpike between interchanges 6 and 9, considered a high-priority project, would begin by next spring.

Corzine has said about 15,000 jobs will be created for each $1 billion spent on bridge and road projects.

The initial plan proposed by the turnpike authority had recommended three toll increases over 15 years that would have raised $11 billion.

The increases as approved are expected to bring in an additional $8.25 billion in revenue, of which $7 billion will be used for capital improvements and the rest to partially fund a new rail tunnel into New York City.

Republican lawmakers are seeking to block funding of the rail tunnel with toll revenues. GOP Senate candidate Dick Zimmer, who attended Friday's hearing, promised a legal challenge.