Q&A with transit chief on proposed NJ toll hikes

September 13, 2008 8:12:43 PM PDT
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority last week unveiled a toll increase proposal that would raise $11 billion to fund widening projects on the turnpike and parkway and help fund a new rail tunnel into Manhattan. The proposal calls for three toll increases over 15 years.

Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri, who is chairman of the Turnpike Authority, explained the plan and responded to critics who have panned it.

Q: How much would tolls rise?

A: Tolls would go up 50 percent at the end of 2008, 50 percent in 2012 and another 10 percent in 2023. The average parkway driver, who pays 35 cents, would pay 85 cents in 2023, which is 50 cents more than it is today. The average turnpike driver who pays $1.20 today would pay $3 in 2023, or $1.80 more.

Q: You have been using a doughnut analogy to put the proposed increases in perspective?

A: At Dunkin' Donuts, one strawberry doughnut costs $1.06. We're saying if people are willing to pay $1.06 for one doughnut, they should also be willing to pay 50 cents more over 15 years to make sure roads and bridges are safe.

Q: Why are toll increases necessary?

A: On Nov. 8, the Turnpike Authority has to certify that we have enough money next year to pay our bondholders. We cannot do that. We don't have money to pay for any congestion-relief projects on the turnpike or parkway. There are $1.5 billion in bridge repairs we need to fund that we don't have money for.

Q: What happens next?

Three public hearings are scheduled for the turnpike and parkway toll proposal and three hearings will be held on a separate proposal to increase tolls by 50 percent on the Atlantic City Expressway. The public can submit written comments until Oct. 1, then the Turnpike Authority board will meet to consider adopting the proposal or amending it. The governor can veto the minutes of the meeting if he opposes the outcome.

Q: Some say the public hearings are unnecessary because the toll increases are a done deal. Is that true?

A: No. Public hearings are an important part of the process. One, the statute requires it. Two, we believe we need to give the public the opportunity to have a meaningful discussion and debate about why the toll increases are necessary and what the money will go toward. The implementation of the proposal as constructed is not a foregone conclusion.

Q: Some Republican lawmakers say they can fund transportation improvements by shifting $500 million from the existing state budget without hiking tolls. What do you say about their approach?

A: The reason the state has its current debt obligations is that politicians over two decades have spent the same money from the same source not once but twice or maybe three times. Taking $500 million from the general fund to fund transportation sounds logical, but they have a responsibility to suggest in clear terms which hospital program they're going to cut, which education program they're going to cut, or which child care program. Q: How did you arrive at the proposed toll hike schedule?

A: We calculated what is necessary to meet our debt service obligations. Then we had to figure out what our capital needs are, which is $9.735 billion. And, third, we knew it makes logical, practical sense for the Turnpike Authority to invest in the rail tunnel, so we wanted to come with another $1.25 billion over 10 years to pay for it. If you add all those up, it equals the toll increase.

Q: Republican state senator and congressional candidate Leonard Lance says raising tolls to help fund the tunnel might be unconstitutional because it's not technically a highway project. Your response?

A: From a factual and a legal standpoint, the tunnel is an appropriate investment for the Turnpike Authority. The statute clearly states that investments in bridges, interchanges and tunnels are allowed.

Q: How is this plan different from the Gov. Jon Corzine's failed asset monetization plan?

A: This is not his plan, it's the board's plan. The scope of it is considerably narrower; it only deals with transportation funding on the turnpike, parkway, and the mass transit tunnel.

Q: The South Jersey Transportation Authority also recently proposed toll hikes for the Atlantic City Expressway. Is this an effort by the state to vastly increase toll revenues?

A: As chairman of both authorities, I have to make sure the roadways are safe and efficient. To the extent there is a conspiracy to keep our bridges safe, I plead guilty.

Q: This proposal does not address replenishing the Transportation Trust Fund. Why not?

A: The Transportation Trust Fund, which funds improvements to state highway systems and mass transit, is solvent through 2011. The board's proposal deals with the problems we currently face. It's analogous to a homeowner deciding whether to fix a leaky roof or replace drafty windows. The homeowner's priority will be to fix the leaky roof. The TTF is solid for another couple of years, but the Turnpike Authority is out of money.

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