New Jersey lawmaker wants more state control of bridges, tolls

| 10/19/2006

With time winding down in New Jersey's legislative session, a bill that still could win approval would give the state more control over the agency that sets tolls for certain bridges over the Delaware River.

Assembly lawmakers unanimously approved the bill earlier this year. It's now in the Senate Transportation Committee.

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. Sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, the bill would require the commission to hold 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, the bill - A908 - also would order the agency 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 Assembly approved the bill, which then stalled in a Senate panel. In 2003, the bill never came up for a vote before the full Assembly.

The legislation was initially introduced amid controversy about toll increases the agency imposed in December 2002 for the 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 increased to $624 million.

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

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

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

About a decade ago, New Jersey granted its governor veto authority over commission decisions and its auditor authority to investigate the commission, but Pennsylvania has yet to enact the same provisions.

A separate bill would abolish the commission and transfer the bridges under their control to the New Jersey and Pennsylvania transportation departments.

Sponsored by Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, 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.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn in January 2007. Any bill that doesn't gain approval in both chambers prior to the end of the session can be brought back for consideration next year.

- By Keith Goble, state legislative editor