Possible alternatives to N.J. toll hike

February 11, 2008 9:19:21 AM PST
A Democratic senator Monday proposed raising the state's gas tax to eliminate some of Gov. Jon S. Corzine's planned toll increases, but predicted Corzine will find support for toll hikes after it becomes apparent that simply using budget cuts to control state finances would be too severe.

With opposition to the toll increases building and the governor conceding changes to the plan he unveiled on Jan. 8, alternatives to the toll increases are being weighed.

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

In order to do that, Corzine wants to increase tolls 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. The increases would include inflation adjustments and, after 2022, tolls would increase every four years until 2085 to reflect inflation.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, said the 2022 increase could be eliminated by increasing the state's 14.5 cents per gallon gas tax by 10 cents now and five cents in 2013. Doing so, he said, would allow the state to pay for transportation work for decades.

New Jersey has the nation's third lowest gas tax. The average state gas tax is 23.6 cents per gallon.

Lesniak also said the state should immediately boost tolls by 50 percent - rather than 50 percent in 2010 - to pay for widening toll roads and fixing bridges on them, two key needs often cited by Corzine.

"I don't think anyone is going to oppose alleviating congestion, and certainly no one is going to oppose making our bridges safe," Lesniak said.

The other toll increases proposed by Corzine would go forward under Lesniak's plan.

In addition to the toll increase, Corzine also plans to control state finances by freezing spending in the coming budget and restricting future spending and state borrowing. The spending freeze, Corzine said, will mean $2.5 billion in budget cuts this year.

"We're going to have very harsh cuts," Corzine said.

Corzine's toll plan is expected to save the state about $1 billion per year in debt, so Lesniak said if legislators want to avoid toll increases, they'll have to cut the budget by that amount - on top of the $2.5 billion in cuts already promised by Corzine.

"It's probably all on the table except education, but everything else will be cut," Lesniak said. "There's going to be some serious objection."

Those objections, Lesniak said, will make legislators take a second look at Corzine's plan, which has been rejected by all 49 legislative Republicans and several Democrats.

"I think the governor's defined the problem correctly, but it's just that his solution is too severe," said Senate Budget Chairwoman Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex.

Buono said the focus must be on spending cuts and controlling spending and borrowing.

"The dialogue has to be about give-and-take, and by that I mean there has to be a willingness on the part of the administration to be flexible and compromise, and I think that's where it's heading," Buono said.

Corzine on Sunday said he'll drop plans to add tolls to Route in 2011.

Corzine said a 20 percent income tax increase, 30 percent sales tax increase and 50 cent gas tax increase could accomplish his goals, but then the burden would be on New Jerseyans.

"The reason we actually went with the plan that I suggested was that if you raise income taxes or you raise the gas tax, primarily it will be paid by New Jerseyans," Corzine said.

About half of New Jersey Turnpike drivers are from out-of-state.

Senate President Richard J. Codey proposed looking into leasing the state lottery to a private company, but questions combining gas tax and toll increase.

"It would be a crippling double whammy," said Codey, D-Essex.