State taps Turnpike's pot of gold

Road merger could avert toll increase on Parkway
Thursday, January 02, 2003

The New Jersey Turnpike has emerged as the state's transportation cash machine over the past 18 months.

When the Garden State Parkway needed money to rebuild the Driscoll Bridge that spans the Raritan River in Middlesex County, the Turnpike shelled out $135 million.

When NJ Transit could not come up with the funding to complete a massive rail project in Secaucus, the Turnpike forked over $84 million.

When the New Jersey's E-ZPass Consortium was going broke, the Turnpike kicked in $30 million.

Even after all that, the Turnpike authority is still sitting on more than $600 million in reserve accounts and this week the highway agency imposed an average 10 percent toll increase that is expected to generate more revenue -- an extra $41 million a year.

That infusion of money, officials said, will come in handy as the state moves ahead on its plans to merge the Turnpike with the cash-starved Parkway. Officials said they expect to unveil their merger proposal sometime this winter.

The consolidation, transportation experts said, would shield the Parkway from the need to increase tolls to pay for its long list of capital projects, including building new ramps at Interstate 78 and adding extra lanes in Ocean County.

"For too long, we've had the Turnpike and the Parkway operating as if they were on different planets," said Jamie Fox, who is leaving his post as state transportation commissioner to become Gov. James E. McGreevey's chief of staff.

"If there's not going to be a toll increase on the Parkway, and we're not supporting one, there needs to be a way of paying for the repairs the road needs, the safety improvements, the widening," Fox added.

The strategy reflects one of the curiosities in New Jersey highway politics. The two highway agencies have been in existence for about five decades. Over that time, the Turnpike has had five toll increases and the Parkway just one.

"For whatever reason, historically, it's been much tougher to raise tolls on the Parkway than on the Turnpike," said Fox.

"You mention raising tolls on the Parkway and right away people tell you there's no way it's going to happen," said Martin Robins, executive director of Rutgers University's Transportation Policy Institute. "I think it really goes to the public perceptions of the two different roads."

The extra Turnpike revenue may prove convenient for officials looking to get the money for the Parkway's needs. But what about folks who drive only on the Turnpike? Should their tolls be used to pay for projects on the Parkway?

"If they don't use all the money on the Turnpike projects, you could make the argument they should lower tolls," said Steve Carrellas, coordinator of the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association.

"The plan for the (Turnpike) toll increase called for them to raise so much money, it's almost like they were waiting for this to happen," Carrellas added.
The Turnpike is proceeding with many of its own projects that the toll increase was supposed cover, including repairs on various bridges and building a new interchange in Secaucus. One controversial job -- the $215 million construction of a Turnpike extension through southern Middlesex County -- remains in limbo, pending environmental permits.

Transportation experts said the state cannot afford to be narrow-minded about separating Turnpike and Parkway funds.
"We're starting to see the end of the independent authorities," said Janine Bauer, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a watchdog group. "The idea of the authorities as fiefdoms with their own pots of money is a relic of the past."

Fox said the Turnpike's $84 million contribution toward the new Secaucus train station will prove to be the exception. "I don't see highway money going toward mass transit," Fox said.

But the Turnpike's $135 million toward rebuilding the Parkway's Driscoll Bridge -- which is at the point in Middlesex County where the two highways cross each other -- would be a model for the state.

"For too long, we have looked at it in a piecemeal fashion, that can't continue," Fox said. "The public doesn't care if the Driscoll bridge is a Parkway bridge or a Turnpike bridge. All they care about is that it's in disrepair and it needs to be fixed."

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