Corzine prepares toll hike plan

January 7, 2008 3:07:40 PM PST
New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine is set to unveil Tuesday his plan to increase tolls on some of the nation's busiest highways to help cut state debt and pay for transportation improvements.

Corzine hasn't revealed specifics but is expected to seek at least a 45 percent toll increase just to pay for widening the New Jersey Turnpike in central New Jersey and fixing aging bridges on it and the Garden State Parkway.

"I don't take this step lightly," Corzine said. "I do so because it is the only way, in my judgment, to dramatically change the state's financial position."

Corzine's plan is meant to combat mounting debt he said threatens the state's future. He will announce Tuesday during his State of the State speech to the Legislature that he won't let spending increases in the budget due July 1 to emphasize his intent to revamp state finances.

Corzine wants to pay at least half of $32 billion in state debt, a total that's doubled since 2000 and makes the state the nation's fourth-most indebted state. The debt consumes about 10 percent of the state budget - a figure Corzine said will rise in coming years, preventing the state from investing in vital key needs unless something is done.

State bridges also need $13.6 billion in repairs and the state's transportation fund is set to run out of money in 2011.

Corzine has acknowledged his plan may be tough to sell to lawmakers and citizens, but insists he has little choice.

"The real risk to our collective future comes from the status quo, not from change," he said. "Make no mistake - I am willing to lose my job if that's necessary to set our fiscal house in order and get New Jersey out from the debt burden constraining our future."

Corzine wants to create a nonprofit agency that would issue bonds to bring the state a quick, large cash infusion. The bonds would be paid back by increased tolls.

He's also looking at other revenue sources, including possibly selling naming rights to state properties, development rights at train stations and properties along toll roads, leasing state-owned fiber optic networks and increasing fees for vendors at toll road rest stops.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak said the state could also earn money by installing windmills along toll roads.

"The governor's plan is not about just raising tolls," said Lesniak, D-Union.

Lesniak said the public would likely accept toll increases if they matched annual cost-of-living increases atop of what it would take to widen the turnpike, though he said he didn't know what Corzine will propose.

"It's not going to be easy because change is always difficult," Lesniak said of whether the public would accept Corzine's plan.

A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released Monday found 50 percent of voters oppose increasing tolls, with 39 percent supporting the idea.

"The governor knows he has a sales job ahead of him," said Peter Woolley, a political scientist and the poll director of the poll.

The poll found 55 percent of voters think the state is on the wrong track, with 48 percent of voters approving Corzine's performance and 32 disapproving. His approval rating is down 3 points from October.

"Even if voters are pessimistic about the direction of the state, they retain some optimism about the governor," Woolley said.

The Garden State Parkway has had one toll increase and the New Jersey Turnpike four in the last 50 years. In 1989, parkway tolls increased to 35 cents per toll booth. The last turnpike toll increase was in 2003, a 17 percent hike.

The average cash-paying automobile driver pays $1.92 per turnpike trip.

Republicans remain skeptical.

"We're going to dramatically raise tolls, which is really just a tax increase, to keep feeding the monster of state spending," said Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth. "People are leaving the state in droves because they can't afford to live here and we're going to make it worse."


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