Corzine: No alternative yet to increasing tolls

January 18, 2008 11:57:30 AM PST
New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine on Friday said he's yet to see an alternative to significantly increasing tolls on some of the nation's busiest highways to pay state debt and fund transportation projects. "I'm hearing a lot of criticism," the Democratic governor said, "but I don't hear anybody actually laying down an alternative."

Corzine wants to pay off at least half of $32 billion in debt and fund transportation projects for 75 years.

To do so, he wants to increase tolls 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. Those increases would include inflation adjustments, and after 2022 tolls would increase every four years until 2085 to reflect inflation.

The Atlantic City Expressway, Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike would be affected and tolls would be added to Route 440.

Since Corzine unveiled his plan on Jan. 8 it has been met with criticism by legislators, and polls show heavy opposition among residents.

"When you say there is a problem and acknowledge that there's a problem, you need a solution," Corzine said. "This is one of those alternatives, and, yes, people are going to poke holes in this one, but they are not presenting, as I've seen, any alternative."

State debt has doubled since 2000, costing about $3 billion this year, or about 10 percent of the state budget. That cost is going to increase each year and make it hard for the state to pay for existing programs, let alone create new ones, Corzine contends.

A recent report found New Jersey is the nation's fourth-most indebted state, and the state's fund for transportation projects will run out of money in 2011.

Corzine wants to create a nonprofit corporation that would manage toll roads.

It would issue bonds to raise as much as $37.6 billion that would be paid back with increased tolls. The money would be used to pay as much as $29.6 billion in toll road and state debt.

"People opposed to any meaningful public policy solution to the fact that we have a huge debt crisis in this state and a financial crisis and no way to pay for future transportation needs are going to accentuate what the negative is," Corzine said. "I have yet to see a comparable or even approximate alternative, and if there was an alternative, I'm sure we could start punching holes in that."

Alternatives, he said, involve a 20 percent income tax increase, 30 percent sales tax increase, 50 cent per gallon gasoline tax increase and massive budget cuts. He said tolls need to increase 50 percent no matter how his plan proceeds, to pay for widening toll roads.

Several legislators have vowed to oppose putting tolls on Route 440. Corzine didn't back away from that idea, but emphasized the main goal is to pay half of state debt and fund transportation.

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