Toll roads spend big, thanks to a windfall
Construction, repair projects set a record
Monday, February 16, 2004
BY JOE MALINCONICO
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
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
firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-4230.