NJ had toll hike hearings during pandemic — No opponent showed up to speak
Sixteen people spoke about proposed toll hikes on New Jersey’s two biggest toll roads, all of them in favor, at two public hearings held Wednesday amid a worldwide pandemic and social distancing that has ground the economy nearly to a halt.
Eleven people spoke at an afternoon hearing in Woodbridge and six at an evening one in Sicklerville. One person spoke at both. Most of the speakers represented unions or business organizations directly involved in transportation construction who back the $24 billion in projects the plan would support.
Nobody opposed the hikes, though one resident at the afternoon hearing said more should be done to prevent drivers from entering or exiting by neighborhoods like his in places where they can avoid toll plazas.
Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti acknowledged the questions about proceeding with the hearings and toll hikes but said the economic uncertainty is a reason to move ahead with a plan long in the works that would sustain tens of thousands of jobs.
“Today we are experiencing the economic impact of COVID-19. Not unlike other periods of economic downturn, public works projects sustain us in recovery efforts and help to stimulate a lagging economy,” she said. “The proposed NJTA capital plan is among the strongest economic stimulators for the state of New Jersey.”
Others speakers concurred. Joe Fiordaliso, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of New Jersey, said it’s critical that the proposal be enacted by the Turnpike Authority board.
“You know, in light of everything we’re dealing with in our nation at the moment, I do wish the timing of this hearing were different, as you indicated, Madam Chair,” Fiordaliso said. “However our capital needs just can’t wait.”
Anthony Attanasio, president of Hawk Strategies and a former DOT assistant commissioner, said it’s important to infuse money into the economy at a time of such uncertainty.
“Transportation investment is – and I’m biased – arguably the most important thing we can be doing in society. Health care, education and infrastructure, core elements of government,” Attanasio said.
The authority says the average New Jersey Turnpike toll would increase from $3.50 to $4.80. The average toll on the Garden State Parkway would go from $1.11 to $1.41. Starting in 2022, tolls could increase with the rate of inflation, though no more than 3% a year.
Zoe Baldwin, director of government affairs and communications for the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey, said no one likes to pay more but everyone wants a better, faster commute.
“We’re also very much in support of the increases being indexed to inflation but subject to a reasonable cap,” Baldwin said. “This is a common-sense fiscal policy that was applied to the gas tax and should be applied here.”
The plan calls for making permanent an Interchange 19W with direct access to the Meadowlands Sports Complex and the American Dream mall and entertainment complex without using Route 3. Gutierrez-Scaccetti said that’s now available only when football is played at MetLife Stadium.
The biggest part of the plan is for $16.7 billion in projects increasing the capacity of the toll roads, including widening the turnpike between Interchange 1 and 4, widening the Newark Bay extension between Interchanges 14 and 14C and widening the parkway between exits 80 and 83, 98 and 125 and 129 and 153. More than 40 projects are listed in all, 11 of them systemwide.
“These projects all replace and upgrade infrastructure that is well over 50 years old,” said Greg Le Frois, a project manager for HNTB Corporation, the authority’s engineering consulting firm. “They will improve mobility for commuters and truckers alike and provide a significant infusion of jobs into New Jersey.”
Jerry Keenan, executive vice president of the New Jersey Alliance for Action, said the proposal will set up generations of economic success for state residents.
“This is really a day that will go down in history. It really is,” Keenan said. “It’s a dramatic, dramatic day. It reminds me of when they first got together to talk about let’s build the George Washington Bridge, or let’s build the Lincoln Tunnel.”
The Turnpike Authority has extended its period for accepting written comments on the plan to Friday, April 3, due to the disruptions from the novel coronavirus.
Comments can be mailed to: Executive Director, New Jersey Turnpike Authority, 1 Turnpike Plaza, P.O. Box 5042, Woodbridge, NJ 07095. They can also be emailed to NJTApubliccomments@njta.com.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.