Senator predicts big toll, gas tax hike

March 4, 2008 1:15:36 PM PST
A Democratic senator Tuesday predicted that by year's end a 45 percent toll increase to fix toll roads and a gas tax increase to pay for statewide road, bridge and rail improvements would be approved.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak said he's been having extensive talks with fellow legislators looking for an alternative to Gov. Jon S. Corzine's plan to significantly increase highway tolls to pay state debt and fund transportation.

No legislators back Corzine's plan, and the Democratic governor acknowledges changes will be made.

"We've had discussions and there's been an acknowledgment that we can't sweep this under the rug," said Lesniak, D-Union.

Though nothing has been finalized, Lesniak predicted:

- The New Jersey Turnpike Authority would hold public hearings on needed repairs and improvements on the state's toll roads, including widening the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike.

- Legislators would hold hearings on needed repairs to highways, bridges and rail lines throughout the state.

Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri has said a 45 percent toll increase is needed to fix toll roads and repair bridges on them, and Lesniak predicted support by the authority for that increase.

"I don't think there's a lot of people who are going to be opposed to improvements to save lives," Lesniak said.

The state's transportation fund is set to run out of money in 2011. Lesniak predicted it would be kept alive by three increases in the 14.5 cent per gallon gasoline tax. He said those increases could eventually boost the tax by 15 cents to 18 cents.

Lesniak envisioned public support for that once hearings show the need for more highway, bridge and rail funding, including money for a new Hudson River rail tunnel.

"We have very intelligent residents in this state," Lesniak said. "They just want to know what they're paying for."

Corzine, speaking to the New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties on Tuesday, said a gas tax increase on top of higher gas prices "is not my favorite choice."

"But I do believe that I have responsibility to move us forward," Corzine said. "If that's what it takes, I guess I can be convinced."

Corzine said his budget plan, with its $2.7 billion in spending cuts, should be the first priority, but said the federal government wants a transportation funding plan in place by year's end so it can decide whether to help fund the new rail tunnel.

Corzine proposed increasing highway tolls 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. The increases would include adjustments to reflect inflation. After 2022, tolls would increase every four years until 2085 to also reflect inflation.

Lesniak said one to cut debt, as Corzine insists must be done, is possibly reducing future toll increases to 20 percent, but said that's uncertain.

The 550-member association represents industrial, warehouse and distribution centers along the turnpike and worries large turnpike toll hikes would devastate New Jersey businesses facing competition from Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley.

As an alternative, it backs tolling Intestates 78 and 80, or putting tolls on Interstate 295 near the Delaware border and Interstate 287 near the New York border.

Corzine neither dismissed nor embraced that plan, but called it a "legitimate alternative that needs to be studied."

Lesniak said that plan won't be approved.

"I can't imagine there would be any support," he said.