Opponents of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s plans for spending $24 billion on roadway construction turned the agency’s monthly meeting Tuesday into an unofficial public hearing to lodge their criticisms.

Public hearings on the capital plan and its accompanying toll hikes took place March 18, right at the beginning of the coronavirus restrictions, at a time when the size of gatherings was restricted but people weren’t ordered to mostly stay at home. All 16 of the speakers that day supported the plan.

Tuesday’s monthly meeting was conducted over the phone, affording opponents a chance to chime in during the public comment portion that wasn’t available to them six weeks ago. Over an hour and a half, about two dozen of them did just that.

Their arguments mostly complemented each other: They oppose the two-thirds of the capital plan that would widen portions of the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway because it would increase emissions from vehicles that aggravate climate change.

“We do not oppose the toll hike. We don’t even oppose all of the capital plan. There’s $16 billion being proposed that’s ridiculous, the massive highway expansion,” said David Pringle, a consultant affiliated with Clean Water Action. “Given the climate and COVID crises, we can’t afford any wasted money. We can’t afford wasted money anywhere but especially right now.”

“Let’s not waste $16 billion that research from the Journal of the Transportation Research Board deems ineffective” because it encourages increased traffic, said Alana Horowitz Friedman, of Weehawken.

Ken Dolsky, of Parsippany-Troy Hills, said the authority should consider the state’s overall needs.

“I understand when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail and as a Turnpike Authority, you look at solutions and they all take the form of increasing the Turnpike and improving the Turnpike and expanding the Turnpike and other roads like the Parkway,” Dolsky said.

None of the speakers argued against the toll hike, which would raise the average toll by 37% on the Turnpike and 27% on the Parkway. A separate proposal would raise tolls on the Atlantic City Expressway, and all three roads would be able to hike tolls along with inflation each year starting in 2022.

But lots of the speakers took exception to the environmental impacts of the road widenings – including the Turnpike between Interchange 1 and 4 and the Newark Bay extension between Interchanges 14 and 14C and the Parkway between exits 80 and 83, 98 and 125 and 129 and 153. They said to fund transit projects instead.

“I was a bit taken aback when, upon reading the 45-page summary of the capital plan, not a single reference to the words climate change, air pollution, environment or public health in the entire 45 pages,” said Matt Smith, New Jersey state director for Food and Water Watch.

“If you vote for highway expansion, I personally will hold you responsible for bad health, more asthma, more COPD, more cancer, more deaths from the pollution caused by this expansion of the highways, putting more trucks, more cars on the highways,” said Paula Rogovin, of Teaneck.

Daniela Gioseffi said New Jersey is already one of the most polluted states in the country, known for cancer and asthma, and that research indicates the novel coronavirus is more deadly in places with air pollution.

“I want to express deep empathy for the workers who died of COVID, no doubt because their lungs were compromised by the filthy air of this state,” Gioseffi said. “This beautiful Garden State being destroyed by filthy air.”

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