Fork it over ; Turnpike toll increase a rude awakening


11/21/2002 The Record, Bergen County, NJ All Editions
Copyright 2002 North Jersey Media Group Inc.

Drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike will wake up to a toll increase of up to 17 percent on New Year's Day. And it's catching motorists by surprise because it was approved nearly three years ago.

The increase that will greet drivers at 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 1 was approved in January 2000 under Gov. Christie Whitman. It was part of a two-phase plan to raise tolls by as much as 37 percent. Public hearings on both increases were held in December 1999, and the first increase came on Sept. 30, 2000, when E-ZPass debuted. But a lot of people, it seems, forgot about the second one.

"It's a well-kept secret," said Jack Kelly, 79, already trying to recover from shelling out $3.05 to travel from Interchange 9 in New Brunswick to Interchange 18W in East Rutherford on Wednesday. "It's shocking, and now I'll have to pay more. I doubt people remember back so far, but this is New Jersey. You expect it."

Drivers shouldn't hold out any hope that the new Democratic administration will rescind the increases approved by its Republican predecessor. It's not going to happen.

"It was done prior to us coming here, but if you're asking me whether I'd recommend we'd reverse it, I think it would be irresponsible for me to do that," said Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox. "If we're going to continue to keep the turnpike safe and ease congestion and help with economic development, we have to be aware of what it's going to cost, and we can't continue to mislead the public that we don't need any money."

Fox, however, acknowledged that most drivers won't like the toll increases. "You don't have to do a poll on that," Fox said. "I can also say with some confidence that the public is tired of government entities continuing to borrow to pay bills, and we have to be responsible."

The toll increase in 2000 was the first on the turnpike since 1991.

Like the most recent increase, the new one will hit cash-paying drivers the hardest, and provides less of a bite for those with E- ZPass - especially those who travel during off-peak hours.

Drivers paying cash will shell out 17 percent more. Those with E-ZPass who travel during off-peak hours didn't have to pay higher tolls the first time. It was an incentive to encourage drivers to use the new system. This time around, they'll pay 5 percent more. Passenger vehicles traveling during rush hours or on weekends with E-ZPass will pay 10 percent more.

For instance, a cash-paying driver now pays $5.50 to ride the entire length of the road from Interchange 1 to Interchange 18W. That same driver will pay $6.45 on Jan. 1. That driver paid $4.60 before the toll increase in 2000.

Truckers will see increases of 13 percent for using cash, and 8 percent with E-ZPass. Turnpike Authority Commissioner Frank X. McDermott, who was turnpike chairman under Whitman, said the two-pronged plan meant drivers wouldn't get socked with a big increase all at once.

"It was all put out there," McDermott said. "Nobody tried to hide it. When we initiated the first increase, that covered not only the introduction of E-ZPass, but covered the sale of new bonds for our capital program, and all of that cash wasn't needed up front, so we deferred it for two years."

McDermott said the 2000 increase didn't spark a public outcry. "And this time it's a fairly modest increase, and we don't expect an outcry this time," he said.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority isn't the first agency to put into place a phased toll increase, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association.

"I don't think it's very common, but it's not completely uncommon," said Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the IBTTA. He said a handful of other agencies, including the one that operates the Ohio Turnpike, staggered a toll hike to avoid increases that would be seen by the public as "gigantic."

But some drivers don't think it's fair to hold hearings nearly three years before a toll increase. "Do it and take responsibility. Don't pass it on to the next governor," said motorist Ed Leary, 70, of Brick Township, who was taking a break at the Vince Lombardi rest stop in Ridgefield. "It's political. Sleazy is a good word for it. But as long as you have politicians, they push things to the next administration so they don't look as bad."

When asked about the process that produced the toll-increase plan, Fox said it deserved a look. "That is a valid question. I think it should be looked at," he said. "... I know it was done legally, but if you're asking me could it be done better? Sure."

The toll increases will pay for a five-year, $917 million capital construction plan, including a new interchange in Secaucus to serve the Allied Junction development and Secaucus Transfer station; construction of Route 92 in central New Jersey; major bridge improvements; and relocation of Interchange 1 in Carney's Point.

Fox said money from the toll increases will not be used to pay for the state's debt-ridden E-ZPass system. "None of the toll hikes will pay off E-ZPass," he said. "The plan we put forward in July will make E-ZPass self-sufficient." That plan includes refinancing roughly $300 million in debt and charging drivers a $1 monthly surcharge. The state saved money on toll collector salaries when it installed E-ZPass, but it also wound up with a huge debt estimated at more than $400 million because of the way the system was financed, officials said.

"The [manpower] savings from E-ZPass are not enough to accomplish everything that needs to be done in terms of improvements, enhancements, and ongoing maintenance of the turnpike," said agency spokesman Joseph Orlando. "There was also the assumption that there would be a savings from E-ZPass and that it would pay for itself. That hasn't exactly happened." John Millett, secretary of Citizens Against Tolls, called the latest increase "insane."

It was a little more than a year ago when candidate - now governor - James E. McGreevey promised to end tolls within seven years on a sister toll road, the Garden State Parkway. Then big budget woes hit Trenton. "With this turnpike increase, we think they're just building surpluses because they're afraid to raise tolls on the parkway," Millett said. "This increase was already planned. After the highway was built they promised to take down tolls in 20 years, and now look at what they're doing."

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