Corzine to increase tolls to solve NJ woes

January 7, 2008 8:28:34 AM PST
New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine is set to unveil on 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 restructure long troubled 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 annual 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 would face re-election in 2009.

Corzine has said the highways will neither be sold nor leased to a for-profit or foreign operator, as Chicago and Indiana have done. Rather, he 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. The Star-Ledger of Newark reported for Monday newspapers that windmills could be installed along toll roads.

Corzine insists highway safety, maintenance and operating standards will be provided at current or improved levels and has promised public meetings in all 21 counties to discuss his plan. The first meeting is set for Saturday in Livingston.

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.

The Parkway is the nation's busiest toll road and the Turnpike the nation's fifth busiest, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.v Corzine's fellow Democrats control the Legislature, and Democratic leaders have vowed to consider Corzine's plan. Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. has noted how voters in November rejected plans to borrow $450 million for stem cell research and to dedicate sales tax revenue for property tax relief. Those defeats, he said, show voters think the state's "fiscal house needs an extreme makeover."

"The state's debt level is staggering and we will never be able to seriously confront property taxes and other key issues until the state's overwhelming fiscal problems are addressed," said Roberts, D-Camden.

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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