The no-toll pipe dream

March 15, 2001

The no-toll pipe dream

Originally published in issue 54 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Mar 2001.


Subjects:detoll anti-toll editorial defense of tolls
pipedream pipe dream

Facilities:Garden State Parkway GSP


Locations:New Jersey NJ

Sources:Times of Trenton

“New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Weinstein is right: It’s folly for political candidates to talk of tearing down the toll plazas on the Garden State Parkway and giving everybody a free ride. Weinstein told a state Senate committee as much last week, even though his boss, acting Gov Donald DiFrancesco, has partially bought into the pipe dream. The prospect of a no-cost Parkway became an issue in the gubernatorial race when Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, who is seeking the GOP nomination, promised to sledgehammer the toll booths if he’s elected. The idea turned out to have legs (wheels?), and a few weeks ago the other two principal candidates for the governor’s job also began talking about ending the tolls. Gov DiFrancesco, Mayor Schundler’s opponent in the GOP primary, has ordered a study, with the aim of coming up with a “responsible plan.” As for the Democratic candidate, Woodbridge Mayor James McGreevey, he’s working on a plan that will be not only “responsible” but also “prudent.” The candidates are holding out false hopes. No matter how the numbers are crunched, they won’t add up to anything that makes practical sense. The Parkway now pays its own capital and maintenance costs, in addition to giving annual contributions to New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund. Without tolls, this money would have to come from taxes. The state would save $37m to $60m a year in the cost of toll collections, plus administration. But it would have to shell out $56m for annual payments on a Parkway debt that exceeds $600m. (The debt would have to be refinanced; it couldn’t just be shifted to state government.) The road also has some $200m in E-ZPass obligations to be dealt with. It has major construction needs, such as rebuilding the Raritan River bridge. Police patrols on the Parkway cost $23m a year. Routine repairs add another $25m; snowplowing, weed cutting and other seasonal requirements amount toms of dollars more. Simply demolishing the toll booths could cost $50m. Mayor Schundler says the Parkway could cover the state’s added expenses each year with $30m the federal government would pony up if the tolls were removed, plus $100m from the general fund. But whether a free Parkway would entitle New Jersey to any additional federal money is, at best, debatable. And that hypothetical $100m would have to replace something else in the budget; it wouldn’t materialize out of nowhere. The Legislature has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t have the stomach to enact even a modest gasoline tax increase to meet compelling highway, bridge and mass transit needs. Why would it want to try to find money to replace a system that’s self-funding? Admittedly, motorists dislike the Parkway’s pay-by-the-trip arrangement, but probably less for the out-of-pocket expenses it imposes than for the awful traffic jams it generates at the toll plazas at rush hour. The potential solution to that problem is an expanded use of E-ZPass, which allows subscribers to roll through the toll lanes without stopping. Where possible, lanes should be upgraded to enable E-ZPass traffic to clear them at highway speeds, an amenity that’s available in other states and at Exit 6 on the New Jersey Turnpike. As Weinstein told the senators, ‘We have enough things in this state in transportation that don’t work,’ and it is to those things that ‘we should be devoting our time and attention.’” Editorial TIMES OF TRENTON 4/22/01

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