Toll roads spend big, thanks to a windfall

Construction, repair projects set a record

Monday, February 16, 2004

Star-Ledger Staff

For years, officials at the Garden State Parkway cried poverty.

There wasn't enough money to fix bridges, they said. No funds to improve congested ramps, they complained. No money to put the Parkway's State Police in suitable quarters, they insisted.

Well, in 2004, officials plan to shell out $106 million for Parkway projects. That's more money than was spent on the Parkway in any year since the highway was built, almost four times more than what was spent in some years in the last decade.

The source of this windfall? The toll increases that went into effect on the New Jersey Turnpike in 2000 and 2003. As a result of last year's highway authority merger, transportation officials have been able to shift tens of millions of dollars of Turnpike money to pay for work on the Parkway.

"This is a catch-up thing for the Parkway," said Martin Robins, executive director at Rutgers University's Transportation Policy Institute. "For many years, they didn't have the money they should have had and they kept deferring things. Their capital spending had been very spare."

"This is exactly what the merger is all about," said Micah Rasmussen, spokesman for Gov. James E. McGreevey. "This allows for a more rational approach. The money goes where it's needed."

The Turnpike also is benefiting from the cash infusion created by the toll increases. Its $204 million capital plan for this year is the largest in its history.

The flush times for the Turnpike and Parkway, which get most of their money from tolls, contrast with the recent struggles at New Jersey's Department of Transportation, which depends upon the gasoline tax and other levies to pay for major projects. Transportation department officials needed a $900 million stop-gap borrowing plan just to keep pace with spending in previous years on major projects.

Not everyone approves of the toll roads' spending spree.

"The Turnpike has more money than they know what to do with," said John Millett, secretary of Citizens Against Tolls. "Other than the bridge repairs, our contention is that all this work isn't necessary. They're just making work for certain groups that are tied to them politically.

"Instead of spending all this money, why don't they just reduce the tolls they're collecting?" Millett asked.

"Do we not have a responsibility to repair the roadway?" Turnpike spokesman Joe Orlando asked. "If we lowered the tolls, I'd like to know where we would get the money when the bridges start crumbling."

In fact, the Parkway's Alfred E. Driscoll Bridge, which spans the Raritan River in Middlesex County, had reached that point.

A couple of years ago, a small piece of the bridge fell, leaving a hole through which people could see the ground below. The bridge's deterioration prompted officials to make a move, even before the highway agencies merged.

In 2002, the Turnpike provided the Parkway with $135 million toward the $175 million construction of an expanded Driscoll Bridge. This year's capital budget sets aside another $34.7 million for the bridge.

Two other high-profile Parkway projects, however, are not on the list for 2004.

The first is construction of ramps to connect Route 78 with the Parkway in all directions. Most of the construction money for that job is supposed to come from the DOT's cash-strapped trust fund, sometime after the 2006 fiscal year.

The second major project on the Parkway's "to do" list is the construction of extra lanes through Atlantic, Burlington and Ocean counties. That massive project remains years away, officials said.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which now runs the two toll roads, has $800 million in reserve for capital projects in future years.

A huge chunk of the reserve -- $250 million -- is set aside for the construction of Route 92, a proposed 6.7-mile extension of the highway from Interchange 8A to Route 1 in southern Middlesex County.

The Turnpike is awaiting approvals from the Army Corps of Engineers before it moves ahead on the Route 92 proposal, which has drawn opposition from local residents and watchdog groups that argue the new road will contribute to sprawl in that fast-growing part of the state.

"Instead of wasting the money on Route 92, there's a lot of fix-it-first projects the state should be doing," said Jennifer Siegal of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

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