Turnpike Authority gets new director

Democrat vows to repair E-ZPass

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority filled its hot seat yesterday, naming Union County Manager Michael Lapolla as its next executive director.

Lapolla will make the same $140,400 annual salary as his predecessor, Republican Edward Gross, whom Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey forced out in January under a barrage of criticism over the financial shortcomings of the state's E-ZPass program.

Under the program, the head of the Turnpike oversees the electronic toll system. Lapolla said solving the E-ZPass problems would be his top priority.

"The decisions are not going to be easy ones, but they have to be made," he said. "I find the E-ZPass financing to be creative, to say the least. ... I wish I was a fly on the wall when the experts were saying this was going to pay for itself."

Under the state's initial plans, toll cheats were expected to pay more than $400 million in fines by 2008 to pay the bulk of the cost of E-ZPass. But increases in operating costs and substantial shortages in fine collections have put E-ZPass on track to ring up a $300 million deficit by 2008.

McGreevey has directed his new transportation commissioner, James Fox, to review the E-ZPass program's finances and to report back to him in four months on what action to take.

Lapolla is the nephew of Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), one of McGreevey's top political advisers. Last year, Lesniak helped run Lapolla's unsuccessful bid to win the Democratic nomination in the 7th Congressional District.

As part of the statewide changing of the political guard, the Turnpike Authority yesterday also named the high-profile Democratic law firm of Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer of Woodbridge as the highway's general counsel.

The Middlesex County firm replaces the prominent Republican law firm Riker, Danzig, Schere, Hyland and Perretti of Morristown, which collected more than $911,969 in fees from the Turnpike in 2000.

Lapolla, 45, who starts his new job March 18, said he has not had a chance to review other key issues confronting the Turnpike, including
the controversial proposal to build Route 92 through southern Middlesex County and plans for a new interchange in Secaucus. Lapolla already has supported the Turnpike's plans to build an extension to Linden's Tremley Point industrial section in Union County.

Assemblyman Alex DeCroce (R-Morris), former chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, and one of the state's highest-ranking Republicans on transportation issues, said Lapolla's managerial experience should help him in the new job.

"We'll have to take a wait-and-see attitude as we will with most of McGreevey's appointees," DeCroce said.

"He's an excellent choice for the job," Fox said. "He's a hard-working professional and he knows transportation."

Lapolla, who has been Union County manager since 1997, grew up in Elizabeth, two blocks from the Turnpike's old Interchange 13.

"I used to throw snowballs at trucks getting on the Turnpike, and then run like hell not to get caught," he said.

Soon after being elected to the Union County freeholder board in 1983, Lapolla said he spearheaded efforts to keep the Turnpike Authority from widening the road through Elizabeth and wiping out more than 100 homes.

After two three-year terms on the freeholder board, Lapolla served as assistant counsel to Gov. Jim Florio in 1990 and was the state director for then-U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley. He also served as Union County first assistant prosecutor from 1991 to 1997.

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