New Jersey lawmaker wants greater control over bridge commission

| 2/13/2006

A New Jersey lawmaker has renewed his effort to give the state more control over the commission that sets tolls for certain bridges over the Delaware River. A separate initiative simply would do away with the commission.

Existing law requires the governors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to appoint members to the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, which critics say operates mostly in secret and at the expense of drivers. The pending bill would require the commission to have public hearings in both states before increasing tolls.

In an attempt to rein in the bridge commission, which maintains and operates seven toll bridges and 13 free bridges connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, has introduced a bill that would order the commission to provide both governors with detailed annual financial reports.

This is the third time in as many sessions Gusciora has sought the oversight. Two years ago, the bill passed the Assembly only to later stall in a Senate panel. In 2003, the bill never came up for a vote before the full Assembly.

The legislation was initially introduced three years ago amid controversy about toll increases the agency imposed in December 2002 for seven toll bridges it maintains between the two states and questions about how the revenue is to be spent, The Associated Press reported.

The increase more than doubled tolls on trucks, raising them from 80 cents per axle to $2.25 per axle. Tolls on cars were doubled from 50 cents to $1. Truck tolls have since increased to $3.25 per axle. Tolls on cars have dropped a quarter to 75 cents.

The commission said the new rates were needed to help fund a 10-year, $526 million capital improvement plan that has since been increased to $624 million.

However, The Morning Call later reported that the commission intended to use about $250 million from the increases for unauthorized projects.

Agency officials have denied they misled anyone about the commission’s intentions.

If signed into law, the provision must also be approved in Pennsylvania due to an interstate agreement that requires each state and Congress to adopt identical laws regulating its operation.

A bill offered by Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, would abolish the commission and transfer the bridges under their control to the New Jersey and Pennsylvania transportation departments.

The bill calls for the two states to pay any outstanding bonds of the commission and remove all tolls. It too would require approval in both states as well as Congress.

Gusciora’s bill – A908 – is in the Assembly Transportation and Public Works Committee. Bucco’s bill – S243 – is in the Senate Transportation Committee.