Say Governor’s Diversion of Toll Funding for Cancelled Project is Dishonest to State’s Drivers
TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Nicholas J. Sacco and Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney which would roll back toll increases intended to pay for the cancelled Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel project that Governor Chris Christie rejected late last year was approved by the Senate today by a bipartisan vote of 27-9.
“When it comes to the cancelled ARC project, there’s just one simple, over-arching principle: ‘No Tunnel, No Toll-Hike,’” said Senator Sacco, D-Hudson and Bergen, and Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “Using funds intended for the ARC construction, absent a comprehensive public dialogue, undermines the public’s input and role in the process, and is unfair to toll-payers who had an expectation where their money was going to go. If the Turnpike Authority wants to use increased toll funding for projects other than the ARC project, they need to start over and allow the public an opportunity to weigh in on transportation funding decisions.”
“New Jerseyans are struggling every day to afford the high cost of living in the Garden State,” said Senate President Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem. “Whenever the cost of living goes up – whether it’s through higher taxes or higher tolls – we owe it to the people to justify that new expense, and level with them about the need for it. If Governor Christie wants to use a toll hike to pay for his transportation infrastructure plan, he needs to take his case directly to the public, and give them a chance to voice their concerns.”
The bill, S-2636, would direct the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to adopt a resolution to scale back toll increases on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway that are no longer required for the financing or payment of the cancelled ARC mass transit tunnel between New York and New Jersey. In 2008, the Authority approved a two-phase toll increase on the Turnpike and Parkway, a portion of which was dedicated to raise $1.25 billion for the State’s contribution to the ARC Tunnel project. In October, Governor Christie announced his decision to terminate the ARC tunnel project, but recently identified increased toll revenues as a part of his plan to stabilize the State’s Transportation Trust Fund (TTF).
The phased in toll increases were estimated to have increased the cost of an average trip on the Turnpike by 50 cents in 2008, with an additional 90 cent increase to be triggered in 2012. The added cost on drivers who take the Turnpike every day for work averages out to $260 a year more in tolls under the 50-cent increase, and $468 a year in added tolls under the 90-cent increase. By reducing the tolls by the portion of toll increase dedicated to the ARC project, drivers would save ten cents on an average trip on the Garden State Parkway, and 34 cents on the average trip on the Turnpike beginning in 2012, or $52 a year for someone who drives the Parkway every day to get to and from work, and $176.80 a year for individuals who drive the Turnpike every day for work.
“If we dedicate funds for a specific project, we should either follow through, or return those funds through decreased tolls,” said Senator Sacco. “No one is doubting that there’s a need for a funding source for the TTF, but we need to engage the toll-paying public in a productive dialogue regarding solutions, and follow the existing process for approving toll increases. By shifting funds that were dedicated for the ARC tunnel for other programs, we’re setting a bad precedent, and opening up any future funding solutions to speculation and uncertainty about whether or not the money will go where it is intended.”
“The tax-and toll-payers of New Jersey deserve honest, candid accounting of what we need for the TTF, and what it’s going to cost the average New Jersey commuter,” said Senate President Sweeney. “Instead, the Governor has opted for a bait-and-switch plan which may spare him a small measure of political convenience, but denies the public any input into the planned toll hikes. If the Governor determines that increased tolls are needed to fund his TTF plan, he should give the people a chance to weigh in, and ensure that any toll increase is as narrowly constructed as possible to avoid massive hikes on people who depend on our toll roads to get where they need to go.”
The bill now heads to the Assembly for consideration.