McGreevey's new Turnpike chief voted for failed E-ZPass
Wednesday, May 29, 2002
BY JOE MALINCONICO Star-Ledger
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
"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
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'
"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
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.
administration officials said yesterday that Simunovich and other economic
development officials should not be blamed for E-ZPass' problem.
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."
Economic Development Authority issues bonds, makes loans and operates real
estate development programs to spur growth and development in New
In a letter congratulating Simunovich on the new Turnpike post,
an unpaid position, McGreevey praised his appointee's "leadership and
"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
Steve Carrellas, coordinator of the New Jersey chapter of the
National Motorists Association, saw irony in Simunovich's appointment to the
"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.
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
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.
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
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
Joe Malinconico covers transportation. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-4230.