NJ lawmaker proposes tolls on free roads

April 8, 2008 6:04:39 PM PDT
Free rides between Pennsylvania and New York City would be a thing of the past under an idea suggested by one leading state lawmaker. During a hearing Tuesday in which the state's transportation commission warned money is dwindling for vital highway, bridge and mass transit repairs, Assemblyman Joseph Cryan suggested putting tolls on Interstates 78 and 80 - free highways that cross east-west across northern New Jersey.

Cryan, D-Union, called tolls on the interstates a "reasonable source of revenue" that might not affect New Jerseyans as much as out-of-state drivers.

"Anybody with eyes can see there's a whole lot of folks who commute from Pennsylvania all the way into New York City in the morning," said Cryan, who is also the state Democratic Party chairman.

Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri neither backed nor opposed the idea during the Assembly Budget Committee hearing.

"We welcome all ideas to the debate," he said.

The state's transportation improvement fund - generated largely by the state's 14.5 cent per gallon gasoline tax - is set to be consumed by debt in 2011.

Kolluri said plans to build a new rail tunnel linking New Jersey and New York city under the Hudson River would be among the first casualties if new funding isn't found.

The federal government has committed $3 billion toward the $7.5 billion project, but has said it won't provide the money if New Jersey doesn't have reliable transportation funding by year's end.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine earlier this year proposed significantly increasing Atlantic City Expressway, Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike tolls to pay state debt and pay for transportation work for 75 years.

But the plan lacks public and legislative support and has stalled.

"Those who oppose it have a responsibility of presenting a plan that is cogent," Kolluri told lawmakers.

He said the state needs to spend about $1.6 billion per year on transportation work.

Some lawmakers have suggested lesser toll increases and increasing the gasoline tax, but nothing formal has been considered.

Besides Cryan, the New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties has also suggested tolling Intestates 78 and 80.

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.

Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, R-Monmouth, emphasized he wasn't advocating new tolls, but said any discussion of doing so should start with those who don't pay, not by "increasing the burden on the people already paying more than their fair share." His district includes parkway drivers.

"Some folks aren't paying any tolls at all," O'Scanlon said.

Assembly Budget Chairman Lou Greenwald said something needs to be done, but also noted difficulty in increasing tolls. He noted parkway tolls have increased once in the last 50 years.

"One of the reason why tolls don't go up is the people who sit up here don't have the political courage," said Greenwald, D-Camden.

Kolluri compared tolls to the prices of milk, health care and tuition that increase regularly.

"Why is it inflation should affect every facet of your life except when it comes to transportation?" he asked.