Turnpike Authority gets new director
Democrat vows to repair
Wednesday, February 27, 2002
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority filled
its hot seat yesterday, naming Union County Manager Michael Lapolla as its next
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."
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
Joe Malinconico covers transportation. He can be reached at