Senator: Toll hearing will test Corzine

January 23, 2008 12:51:17 PM PST
The Senate budget chairwoman said a Wednesday hearing on Gov. Jon S. Corzine's plans to significantly increase tolls on some of the nation's busiest highways to pay state debt tests Corzine's avowed willingness to compromise.

"I'm encouraged by the governor's openness to accepting changes because there will be changes," said Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, who chairs the Senate budget committee that on Wednesday convened the first legislative hearing into Corzine's plan.

Corzine's chief of staff, Bradley Abelow, opened the hearing by emphasizing Corzine's intentions to freeze spending in the upcoming budget, limit future spending growth and require voters approve borrowing. He tied these to Corzine's plan to pay at least half of $32 billion in state debt.

"These four components together are a recipe or formula for restoring fiscal integrity to the state, something that we believe is deeply needed," Abelow said.

Corzine introduced his proposal Jan. 8 and wants it approved by lawmakers by mid-March.

It calls for increasing tolls on the Atlantic Expressway, Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike and add them to Route 440.

The money raised would be used to pay state debt and fund transportation work.

Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, said the hearing was set for late afternoon so citizens could stop by and testify. Codey also dismissed proposals to ease the toll increases by replacing them with a combination of lower toll hikes and a gas tax increase.

"I know everyone is trying to quickly find more palatable alternatives to the governor's plan, but I don't think this is the way to go right now," Codey said. "I think it's important that we examine every nook and cranny of this plan starting (Wednesday) with our first Senate budget committee hearing. Hopefully, with enough voices involved, asking the right questions will lead us to the right solutions."

Corzine wants to pay debt and fund transportation projects for 75 years by creating an independent nonprofit corporation that would manage toll roads and issue bonds paid back with increased tolls.

Corzine 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.

Several legislators, including Buono, contend putting tolls on Route 440 is unacceptable.

Meanwhile, a consultant's report has predicted 20 percent of the drivers who would otherwise use tolls roads would avoid doing so if the toll increases are implemented.