Highways merger signed

Published in the Home News Tribune 5/28/03


WOODBRIDGE -- With Garden State Parkway traffic rumbling overhead on the massive Driscoll Bridge, Gov. James E. McGreevey signed a law yesterday that will consolidate two of New Jersey's toll road agencies and make cooperative projects -- like repair work now under way on the Raritan River span -- easier in the future.

"Better coordination will mean better results, and better results will mean a better quality of life for New Jersey commuters," McGreevey said, flanked by two dozen transportation officials and construction workers. "We know that the answer to making government work smarter does not and cannot always be more money and more spending. The answer instead must be increased efficiency and accountability."

As one of several highly publicized efforts to improve motorists' services, the law instructs the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which runs the 148-mile Turnpike, to take over management of the 173-mile Garden State Parkway from the Highway Authority.

After $1.5 billion in debt for the two agencies is refinanced -- sometime in July, McGreevey said -- the Highway Authority will be phased out and both toll roads will be run by one governmental body for the first time since their construction in the 1950s.

"This is really a landmark in the state's transportation history," state Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere told a crowd of state, county and municipal workers gathered by the river at the Woodbridge Public Works Garage in the township's Keasbey section.

In addition to saving more than $130 million over the next 14 years through combined purchasing power, staff reductions and other efficiencies, McGreevey stressed the merger will give state officials far better planning tools. Instead of individual agencies making plans based on their budgets, priority projects statewide can be bumped up and funded first, he said.

That's how Turnpike officials were convinced last year to contribute to the $225 million on the Parkway's Driscoll Bridge, which carries 80 million cars -- many redirected from the Turnpike -- every year, McGreevey explained.

"For 20 years it's been acknowledged as a great idea; It just hasn't gotten done," Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, said, praising the merger plan he helped shepherd through the Legislature. "New Jersey drivers are going to see a lot more done with less resources."

After receiving almost unanimous Senate support, Assembly Republicans tore into the proposal during a meeting last week. They said the plan would only create a new agency, with little oversight, free to initiate other, expensive state projects -- such as approaches to a possible Newark Arena -- without holding down tolls. The Assembly passed the measure, 43-26, with seven not voting, largely along party lines.

McGreevey said yesterday that such fears are unfounded and that it would actually be illegal, according to the bill, to use funds from this agency to build a Newark Arena, as the GOP feared.

The merger, officials said, is expected to save $4 million in 2004 and more than $9 million a year by 2008. The plan will eliminate 130 high- and mid-level positions, but Parkway Chairman Jerold Zaro said there will be "little pain" among workers, as many have planned for early retirement.

When McGreevey created a commission in March 2002 to examine the merger, the group also considered including the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which runs the Atlantic City Expressway. But the commission determined this entity had other, separate functions -- like local development and running a regional airport -- that couldn't be easily merged with the other toll road agencies.