McGreevey's new Turnpike chief voted for failed E-ZPass plan

Wednesday, May 29, 2002


Gov. James E. McGreevey, who repeatedly has blasted the failed E-ZPass financing scheme he inherited, yesterday appointed as chairman of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority someone who voted in favor of that plan.

The new Turnpike chairman, Joseph Simunovich, was a member of the state's Economic Development Authority in 1998 when he and other board members unanimously approved $300 million in bonding that was crucial to a controversial proposal for E-ZPass to pay for itself with fines from toll cheats.

Simunovich said yesterday that he did not closely examine the details of the E-ZPass financial plan before voting on it.

"Like any agency, we're guided by the recommendations of our staff, unless we see something glaring," said Simunovich, who has served on the economic board for 17 years under four governors.

From the economic development agency's point of view, Simunovich said, the E-ZPass bonds were sound because the highway agencies would come up with the money if the collections on fines fell short of projections.

That is exactly what has happened. Instead of paying for itself with the help of $450 million in fines, as officials promised would happen back in 1998, E-ZPass is heading for a $469 million shortfall by March 2008, the end of the contract. As chairman of the Turnpike, Simunovich will play a key role in figuring out how to cover that deficit.

Simunovich's appointment did not sit well with Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), whose panel recently conducted a hearing on the economic development role in E-ZPass' problems.

"I would urge the Governor and the commissioner to seriously consider the implications that this appointment has in terms of public confidence about how E-ZPass will be handled from here on," Wisniewski said.

In particular, Wisniewski criticized the economic development board for giving a rubber stamp to the E-ZPass financial plan without questioning its flawed projections on fine collections.

"They were told what to do and they did it and I find that troubling," said Wisniewski.

But McGreevey administration officials said yesterday that Simunovich and other economic development officials should not be blamed for E-ZPass' problem.

"I have no concerns about Joe Simunovich whatsoever," said Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox. "As a member of the economic development board, Joe Simunovich voted in favor of a plan that was presented to him by staff and (former Turnpike Executive Director) Ed Gross. Let's put the blame for the debacle where it belongs, and that's with the Whitman administration."

The state's Economic Development Authority issues bonds, makes loans and operates real estate development programs to spur growth and development in New Jersey.

In a letter congratulating Simunovich on the new Turnpike post, an unpaid position, McGreevey praised his appointee's "leadership and commitment."

"I have the utmost confidence in your ability to serve in this critical position," McGreevey wrote. "With your continued support, we will change the way Trenton does business and improve the quality of life for New Jerseyans."

Steve Carrellas, coordinator of the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association, saw irony in Simunovich's appointment to the Turnpike.

"He voted for this thing and it turns out to be a bad decision and now he has to pick up the pieces," said Carrellas.

Simunovich, 63, takes the helm of the highway agency as state officials are weighing whether to merge the Turnpike with the Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway. He replaces Raymond Pocino, a labor leader whom McGreevey has appointed to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

During 30 years in various government positions, Simunovich has maintained a low public profile. But Fox said he is well-known and respected in the upper echelons of state government.

Simunovich served on the Hudson County freeholder board from 1972 to 1983 and helped Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D-Hudson) get his start in politics two decades ago. He was appointed to the economic development authority by former Gov. Tom Kean and managed to survive through the administrations of Jim Florio and Christie Whitman, before becoming McGreevey's pick for the key post at the Turnpike.

A resident of Norwood in Bergen County, Simunovich had been president of United Water company before retiring in 2000. During his years there, the company prospered, expanding its business by entering deals with municipalities to run their day-to-day water operations.

Also under Simunovich, United Water flexed its muscle in the political arena. In his last two years as president, the company's political action committee gave more than $115,000 in political contributions, surpassing the donations made by any other utility in New Jersey. The water company's contributions went to Democrats such as former state Sen. John Lynch, McGreevey's close adviser, as well as to prominent Republicans, including the GOP's current state chairman, Sen. Joseph Kyrillos.

Simunovich yesterday said he was happy to be part of the "new management" McGreevey has put in place at the Turnpike.

"I believe he's one of the best appointments by this administration on any board," said Fox. "He's really a top quality guy."

"The question I have," said Carrellas, "is he going to serve the motoring public or is going to serve McGreevey?"

Joe Malinconico covers transportation. He can be reached at or (973) 392-4230.