New Jersey sets sights on turnpike lease

| 12/21/2006

By early 2007, state officials in New Jersey could be voting on legislation to privatize the New Jersey Turnpike and other infrastructure.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, told the Newark Star-Ledger that a bill in the works to solicit proposals for a private turnpike lease would be similar to the deal the Indiana state government signed to turn control of the Indiana Toll Road over to private investors in exchange for billions of dollars in cash.

New Jersey assets like the turnpike, the Garden State Parkway and the Atlantic City Expressway could potentially fetch $10 billion from a winning bidder, which would become the highest price paid for a private lease of U.S. public infrastructure.

Since the Bush administration set out in August 2005 to authorize and encourage privatize long-term leases of American interstates and infrastructure, two major toll roads have been sold off.

Illinois handed over the 8-mile Chicago Skyway to private foreign investors for $1.83 billion for 99 years. Indiana leased its 157-mile toll road to the same consortium - Cintra of Spain and Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Australia - for $3.85 billion for 75 years.

Since the Indiana deal, the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey have gone public to say they're working on similar deals in their states.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a U.S.-based association representing professional truck drivers, is opposed to the private lease of America's highways.

"The really troubling aspect of this is that it is simply an attractive, easy way for elected officials to get away with not making responsible transportation decisions," OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer told Land Line. "It allows them to essentially sell off what we believe are vital assets to offset their misguided and wasteful spending. This isn't innovative transportation; this is the pawn-shop mentality.

"Americans should not only be in opposition to this, but they should be outraged that these officials should be proposing such a swindle," Spencer said.

New Jersey hopes to use the lease revenue to lower its property taxes, which are the highest in the nation, the Star-Ledger reported. The state hopes to kick $2 billion into a tax-rebate program, officials said.

For the time being, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and other elected officials are awaiting the results of a commissioned study on the viability of private leases before proposing legislation.

- By David Tanner, staff writer