New Jersey Turnpike toll collectors are as Jersey as it gets. There is a great scene from the 1984 movie “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” where two dysfunctional New York cousins, Paulie (Eric Roberts) and Charlie (Mickey Rourke), are driving down the Turnpike on their way to Monmouth Racetrack to place a bet on a “sure thing.”
As they are on the Turnpike, Paulie gives the toll collector a tip, confident that he is about to win big. When Charlie asks him why he did that, Paulie says something about how miserable his job must be, standing in that tiny tollbooth all day. “I just made his day, Charlie.” Well, fact is, tollbooth collectors currently make about $30 an hour, particularly those who are “more experienced” at their job.
But as tough as that job may be to sit or stand in such a tiny space for so many hours, there are over 850 Turnpike employees that wish they could turn back the clock to 1984. Why is that? Because there is a very serious proposal on the table to “privatize” toll collection on the Turnpike, which would in turn save tens of millions of dollars for the state of New Jersey.
A task force reported to Governor Chris Christie recently that a realistic estimate of annual savings by privatizing toll collection on the Turnpike would be between $35 million and $42.5 million a year. The catch is that in the request for proposals for a private company taking over toll collection calls for toll collectors to make $12 per hour — not $30 an hour. All this in an effort to ultimately move to some sort of automated collection of tolls where no actual employees are involved in taking money from us.
You know what is interesting here? This is a classic example of two legitimate but competing goals that run into each other and only one goal can survive. Think about it. Everyone says they want government to spend less money, to find ways to be more efficient, and to cut the number of government employees. You know, that whole thing about smaller government is best. All together that sounds fine, and people agree to it in theory.
But there is another competing goal, particularly in such difficult economic times, which is to keep as many people employed as possible — including Turnpike toll collectors. Toll collectors buy things like cars, houses, refrigerators, toys for their kids — you know, stuff you pay sales tax on. Toll collectors keep the economy moving. Fact is, anyone who is working is bound to spend more, which obviously helps the economy. So what happens if 850 toll collectors lose their jobs because there is a cheaper, more efficient way of collecting toll money from us? I understand that we need to do it because we need to cut the size of government. But if a 56-year-old guy loses his job as a toll collector and can’t get a job for 18 months, two years or even more, how is that good for the economy?
You see, no one ever answers that question. Sure, we’ll hear some things about the guy who loses his job having to “retrain himself.” We will hear talk of new technology creating new employment opportunities. All that is fine, but it is a lot easier said than done. My point here is that not only are there no easy answers, but by trying to solve one problem (cutting the size of government), we actually create another problem (putting more people on the unemployment line), which in turn makes our economic problems even worse. I just wish we were more honest with ourselves about these competing agendas and what are often gray areas when it comes to public policy.
None of this stuff is black and white. It’s just never any fun nor is it good politics to talk about “shades of gray” or conflicting goals. Did you ever notice that bumper stickers and slogans never really solve problems? They just seem to work at election time or for political pundits and columnists like me who have to come up with pithy one-liners and sound bytes in order to make good copy, or worse, good TV. This column doesn’t fall into any of those categories because clearly what I am saying is that I’m not sure which way to go when it comes to this whole Turnpike toll collector issue. I get the need to reduce the cost of government and yes, getting rid of employees making $30 an hour who collect tolls from us seems to make sense when you are talking dollars and cents.
But at least I know that I don’t want to see those people lose their jobs and never find another one because not only is that bad for them and their families, it is bad for the economy and the rest of us. Sometimes none of the choices we face are really good ones because no matter which way you go, there is always going to be fallout. Some innocent party is going to get hurt. This is one of those classic cases. However, if you think there is an easy answer here, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.