Jersey motorists dreading steep toll hikes

January 8, 2008 9:15:56 PM PST
Greg Alexander often spends $10 a day in tolls on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike commuting from his home in Point Pleasant to his job as an iron worker in north Jersey.

Within 14 years, he could be paying $50 for that same round trip under Gov. Jon Corzine's plan for a fivefold toll increase on two of the nation's busiest toll roads.

"It sucks," he said. "That's living in Jersey. The rich get richer, and everyone else has to get out."

Stopping for gas at the parkway's Cheesequake rest area in Sayreville near where the two toll roads meet, the tattooed worker did some quick math, and realized he's just spinning his wheels.

"We get raises, but you never get ahead," he said. "The more money we make, the more money they take."

Corzine announced details of his plan Tuesday afternoon in his annual State of the State address. They include toll hikes of least 50 percent every four years starting in 2010 on the parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Atlantic City Expressway.

Under Corzine's plan, the cost of the average turnpike trip would increase about five times by 2022 to $9.86. The increases would be used to help cut state debt and pay for transportation work.

The parkway has had one toll increase and the 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.

Truck drivers will take a painful hit from the increases, said Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association. She predicted a raft of negative consequences from the hikes, from clogged local roads, to bankrupt smaller trucking companies, to higher prices at the supermarket.

"This is just going to be devastating," Toth said. "I've got companies that already pay $100,000 a month on tolls. A month! Where do you think that extra money is going to come from? Every time you buy a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, you'll be paying for this. At the end of the day, rich and poor alike are going to pay for this."

Tommy Nichols, a Long Branch resident who commutes to Rutgers University in New Brunswick five days a week, was taken aback by the size of the proposed increases.

"That's horrible!" he said. "With all the money we already pay to use these roads?"

Srinivas Vasireddi, a doctor from Cranbury, uses the parkway and turnpike to visit hospitals and offices around the state. He pays about $150 a month in tolls now. That bill would rise to $750 at the end of the proposed hikes.

"That is just too steep," he said. "I can't afford that. I would have to use the local roads, which would increase my commute significantly. The cost of doing business in this state is just tremendous."

Corzine's plan also calls for slapping a 35-cent toll on Route 440 in Middlesex County, a 4-mile graffiti-scarred connector road between the turnpike and the Outerbridge Crossing into Staten Island, N.Y., that is also a heavily traveled local road for residents of Perth Amboy and Woodbridge.

Former Perth Amboy resident Jose Cuenca uses Route 440 several times a month to travel from his new home in Jersey City to visit friends and relatives in his former home.

"It's ridiculous, with all the tolls we have already that are going up to add new ones," he said. "You can't go anywhere anymore. You just have to stay local. And now you can't even do that."

Part of the reason the governor chose toll hikes instead of raising taxes is because roughly half the motorists driving those roads live outside of New Jersey, and thus would help bear part of the burden that would otherwise fall on Garden State residents. Dan Aiello of Hyde Park, N.Y., is one of those out-of-staters.

Already punchy after two hours on the road, he literally jumped backward when he learned of the proposed increases.

"The price of oil, gasoline, electricity, food is all going up," he said at a Garden State Parkway rest stop just north of Atlantic City. "This is killing us. Everything is going up except my salary."

Jack Irvin of White Haven, Pa., is none too happy about helping bail New Jersey out of the red by paying higher tolls.

"I think someone was not taking care of business to need something this immense," he said.

"They let the shortfall get too big, and now they're looking to take it out of your pocket all at once," he said.

The Garden State Parkway is the nation's busiest toll road and the New Jersey Turnpike the nation's fifth busiest, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.