Corzine delivers State of the State address

January 8, 2008 4:52:20 PM PST
New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine on Tuesday asked legislators to act quickly to tackle chronic state fiscal woes by increasing tolls on some of the nation's busiest highways every four years starting in 2010. Corzine unveiled a proposal during his Tuesday State of the State address to the Legislature to increase tolls 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022.

The increases would be used to help cut state debt and pay for transportation work, and include adjustments to reflect inflation in the years tolls weren't hiked. After 2022, tolls would increase every four years to also reflect inflation.

Tolls would increase on the Atlantic City Expressway, Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike and be added to the 4-mile-long Route 440 in Middlesex County, which runs from the New Jersey Turnpike to a Staten Island bridge crossing.

"It's not something I want to do," Corzine said. "This proposal is a solution, a solution to restore the state's financial integrity, health and capacity."

Under Corzine's plan, over the next decade, the cost of the average turnpike trip would increase from $1.20 to $5.85, the average parkway trip would rise from 35 cents to $1.60 and the average expressway toll would go from 50 cents to $2.40.

A 35 cent toll would be put on Route 440 in 2010.

The Democratic governor - a former Goldman Sachs chairman - wants to create a nonprofit agency that would manage the toll highways and issue bonds to bring the state a quick, large cash infusion to pay mounting state debt. The bonds would be paid back by the increased tolls.

State debt has 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 that Corzine said will rise in coming years and prevent the state from investing in needs such as health care, urban redevelopment and state colleges and universities.

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

"It is up to us in this room to change the credit card culture of New Jersey's finances," Corzine said.

The administration estimates the deal could be worth as much as $37.6 billion, helping it pay off as much as $29.6 billion in toll road, transportation, open space and general debt and provide money for road work and a reserve fund, helping save nearly $1 billion annually.

Corzine said tolls were the better option over what would otherwise have to be major tax increases and budget cuts.

"Pigs will fly over the Statehouse before there is a realistic level of new taxes or spending cuts that can fix this mess," Corzine said.

The governor also proposed new initiatives to control state spending.

He vowed not to increase spending in the budget due July 1 beyond this year's $33.47 billion level.

He also proposed limiting annual spending growth to expected revenue growth and amending the state constitution to require voters approve most state borrowing.

Senate President Richard J. Codey welcomed Corzine's plan.

"We have to recognize that fiscally our house is not in order," said Codey, D-Essex. "Now is the time to fix it and fix it finally and once and for all."

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, promised to oppose the plan, calling it "the brashest gimmick of all - the selling of some of our most important assets, the cash stream of our roadways."

So did some Democrats.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Assembly Transportation Committee chairman, said he continues to oppose using money earned from highways to pay debt unrelated to transportation.

"I am and will always be committed to the proposition that transportation assets should be used exclusively for transportation purposes," said Wisniewski, D-Middlesex

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 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.

The three highways carried 748 million vehicles in 2006; the parkway 428 million, the turnpike 252 million, and the expressway 68 million.


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