State taps Turnpike's pot of gold
Road merger could avert toll
increase on Parkway
Thursday, January 02, 2003
BY JOE MALINCONICO
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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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 email@example.com or at (973)