New Jersey Turnpike money used for other projects

| Friday, January 03, 2003

If you think all that toll money you've paid to the New Jersey Turnpike has gone for turnpike improvements or repairs, think again.

According to a report published Jan. 2 by the Newark Star-Ledger, the turnpike has generated so much cash it has been able to shell out money to a number of non-turnpike projects - and still keep more than a half-billion dollars in reserve.

Despite that, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority raised tolls Jan. 1, increasing cash tolls 17 percent and E-ZPass tolls 10 percent at rush hour and 5 percent during other times.

The higher tolls - which media reports said would raise about $41 million - are part of a two-stage toll hike the turnpike authority said would help pay for a $917 million capital improvement program.

Some of those capital improvement projects are moving forward. However, Jan. 2, the newspaper reported the turnpike authority had used truckers' and other motorists' tolls for several other projects, including:

  • The Driscoll Bridge over the Raritan River on the Garden State Parkway, $135 million.
  • A new train station in Secaucus, $84 million.
  • Bailing out the E-ZPass Consortium, $30 million.

After those projects and other costs, the turnpike still has reserves in excess of $600 million.

Lines are being drawn over how the turnpike money should be used. Watchdog groups in the state have criticized the diversion of turnpike funds. And they are not alone.

"Without question turnpike money should never be spent on non-turnpike projects," Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said. "But the bigger and far more important question for now and the future is whether these entities should exist at all.

"Increasingly, turnpike authorities exist without meaningful oversight and accountability to anyone while they fleece truckers and travelers," he said. "It's a load of crap and no one of integrity should suggest otherwise."

The effect of increased tolls on trucking could be significant.

The Associated Press reported Dec. 31 that the turnpike toll increases, a sluggish economy, skyrocketing Delaware River tolls and a possible war-related rise in fuel prices could combine to create significant difficulties for truckers who use New Jersey's roads.

Trucking officials say the industry is extremely competitive, with profit margins in the low single digits, and is sensitive to even seemingly small increases in tolls and other costs.

The money will likely continue to go to uses outside of the turnpike. The state would like to merge the cash-rich turnpike with the money-poor Garden State Parkway, allowing the reserves to boost the poorer road, the Star-Ledger reported.

The new toll increase brings the cost for a standard, five-axle tractor-trailer to $23.20 for the 118-mile length of the road, which runs from the Delaware Memorial Bridge to the George Washington Bridge. That's up from $20.55. The same trip using E-ZPass will be $21.20, up from $19.65.

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