Lease deals for New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway?

| 2/2/2007

If a New Jersey state lawmaker gets his way, private groups would have an opportunity to run the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway in exchange for as much as $15 billion to the state.

Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, this week unveiled a legislative proposal that would authorize leasing the roadways to help reduce the state debt, which exceeds $50 billion.

He said that without a new means to generate revenue, the state won’t be able to adequately fund such programs that include transportation and education.

“New Jersey is at a crossroad,” Lesniak said in a written statement. “We cannot raise taxes or increase our debt, but we have obligations to invest in our future that we must make, or we will go backwards as a state.”

His plan includes a provision that would allow the Turnpike Authority the option of matching the best private firm offer. If the offer is equaled by the Authority, the state would be required to accept the Authority’s deal.

Another provision would allow annual toll increases to be tied to the gross domestic product for commercial vehicles. Rate increases for cars would be linked with the consumer price index.

Lawmakers would have 60 days to veto any privatization deal. If a deal does go through, the State Police would continue to patrol the roadways.

Lesniak said the state shouldn’t settle for anything less than $10 billion to $15 billion for a lease up to 75 years.

While Gov. Jon Corzine is said to still be deciding how he feels about the leasing idea, the list of lawmakers and others lining up in opposition to the plan is growing.

Assembly Transportation Committee chairman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, has expressed his skepticism of the idea for months. Any bill to lease state roadways would likely have to pass through his committee.

“I would scrutinize any bill very carefully. You can tell I’m not a fan of this,” Wisniewski told the Home News Tribune.

One bill – A3686 – that is sure to get a long look from Wisniewski and other opponents of lease deals is a measure that would prohibit foreign groups to take over operation of infrastructure such as the New Jersey Turnpike.

A separate effort – A3952 – would require a public vote on asset sales worth more than $100 million.

Lesniak acknowledged this week he has a very steep hill to climb to get his proposal through the statehouse. “Hopefully, my bill will start a debate,” he said.

Lesniak is expected to introduce his bill Monday, Feb. 5.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor