New Jersey’s top transportation officials on Wednesday defended their decision to hold a hearing during the coronavirus outbreak, on what would be the first toll increase in nearly a decade for the state’s two most heavily traveled highways.
That comes as Gov. Phil Murphy implements a ban on events with more than 50 people and U.S. President Donald Trump recommends gatherings stay below 10 people, all in a bid to starve the virus of in-person contact, which could provide it with new hosts.
Wednesday’s hearing at the Woodbridge headquarters of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority – which oversees the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike, where tolls would be raised – featured a slate of labor unions and construction trade groups who all spoke in favor of the proposed increases.
No one at the meeting one spoke to oppose raising the tolls.
“We are experiencing the economic impact of COVID19. Not unlike periods of economic downtown, public works projects” help “economic recovery efforts,” Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said in her opening remarks at the hearing. “The proposed… capital plan is amongst the strongest economic stimulators in the state of New Jersey.”
The increase would finance multi-year capital upgrades valued at $24 billion for the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike, according to an NJTA presentation.
On average, tolls would go from $3.50 to $4.80 on the Turnpike and $1.11 to $1.41 on the Parkway. That would generate roughly $525 million more each year for the agency, which currently makes $1.6 billion from tolls annually, said NJTA spokesperson Thomas Feeney.
Increases would be indexed starting after 2022—meaning they would increase with the cost of living and inflation, capped at 3 percent a year.
Stop ahead, pay toll
Murphy declared a public health emergency on March 9 as COVID-19 began to spread across the state. Since then, the governor has ordered the cancellation of all events with more than 50 people, and the closure of most retail, hospitality and entertainment businesses.
But at his daily coronavirus press conference, the governor did not object to the NJTA’s style of doing business.
“I don’t know that I’ve got a strongly held opinion,” Murphy said. “I did ask that two things be considered … which is that they be livestreamed … that the comment period be extended, given what we’re going through.”
The main hearing room had 50 people, and “another 30 or 40” in overflow rooms where the hearing was televised, Feeney said.
“With live streaming and an extended period for the public to submit comments as part of the hearing record, we believe we will be able to protect public health without limiting public participation,” he said in a statement. “People will be able to learn about the proposal and make their feelings known without having the sole option of attending the meeting in person.”
Still, Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, called the decision to hold the hearing amid the outbreak “shameful.”
“This rogue and arrogant authority is out of control. The fact that the Turnpike Authority is going forward with these hearings in the middle of a crisis and public health emergency is deplorable,” Tittel said in a statement. “They are live streaming the meetings, but this does not allow for public comments and many people don’t have computers or are busy taking care of their families during this public health emergency.”
Tolls last increased in 2012, going up 53 percent for the Turnpike and 50 percent of the Parkway, in order to fund a $7 billion capital plan.
The 45-page plan calls for 24 long and short-term projects for the Turnpike and 29 projects for the Parkway, which would range in length from less than two years to a decade.
It includes a $900 million plan to implement cashless tolling, and calls for lane-widening projects, pavement “preservation,” bridge rehabilitation, median barrier improvement and the addition of a tolled Exit 19W near the Meadowlands sports complex.
Part of the budget Murphy laid out in February, and the New Jersey Transit financing plan that Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, introduced, both call for moving tens of millions of dollars from the Turnpike Authority to plug holes at the transit agency. The end-game for both plans is to avoid a fare increase for commuters.
A second hearing will be held on March 25 at Camden County College at 6 p.m. The public comment period has been extended until April 3 at 5 p.m.