Express Toll Lanes Could Help NJ Motorists Steer Clear of Congestion

A proposal to build high occupancy toll lanes on state’s most crowded highways is getting serious consideration from Sweeney and Sarlo

route 78
The idea of adding express toll lanes to busy highways like I-78 and I-80 has been discussed before, but policymakers are starting to get more serious about giving motorists the chance to pay a premium to breeze through chokepoints.

A proposal to create so-called HOT lanes was recently endorsed by Senate President Steve Sweeney after it was included in a report released by a group of fiscal-policy experts tasked with finding innovative ways to address the state’s troubled finances.

It also has the backing of Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), who sees express toll lanes as a way to ease pressure on the state Transportation Trust Fund without forcing anyone to pay a higher toll if they don’t want to. Under the fiscal-policy group’s proposal, the highways’ existing lanes would remain free; a premium would be levied only on those who choose to get on what would be newly built, and possibly privately administered, express lanes.

Murphy might go along for the ride

And while Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to endorse or reject any of the report’s individual proposals, he’s signaled his willingness to consider those that don’t directly harm the middle class. Murphy’s Department of Transportation commissioner, Diane Gutierrez-Scacchetti, is also a former executive director of the state transportation agency in Florida, which is one of the handful of places that already use express toll lanes to raise additional revenue.

“There’s not extra money, like any extra coins under the sofa,” Sweeney (D-Gloucester) told NJ Spotlight staffers in a recent sit-down interview as he talked about the group’s overall recommendations, which also touched on education spending and public-worker benefits.

“In order to go further with education funding, transportation funding, pre-K funding, we need more money,” Sweeney said.

Could HOT get hot in NJ?

According to the Federal Highway Administration, eight states have been allowed to add high occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes to major interstates as a way to encourage carpooling that reduces congestion. Unlike traditional high occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes, HOT lanes can also be used by tractor trailers and motorists who aren’t carpooling if they are willing to pay a premium to use the lanes. HOT-lane fees also typically rise during peak commuting hours, or when traffic is at its worst.

Frank Chin, managing director of the American Public Infrastructure consulting firm, said given New Jersey’s high density he’s surprised the state hasn’t already sought to add express toll lanes to the interstates. The concept was analyzed but never advanced by the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie. Adding toll lanes to the interstates was also mentioned in a lengthy report on state transportation issues that was released last year by the nonpartisan Fund for New Jersey.

“In effect, they allow a (state) to build new capacity and charge for that capacity, so it has the effect of basically increasing capacity on an existing roadway,” said Chin, who was one of the policy experts tasked by Sweeney and other lawmakers earlier this year to come up with recommendations to improve the state’s finances.

“It also has the users of that roadway pay for it,” Chin said.

Public and private possibilities

Sweeney said a bill recently signed into law by Murphy, a first-term Democrat, rewrote state regulations related to public-private partnerships to include transportation projects. That could help generate new interest from private companies that would be willing to widen roadways and operate the new toll lanes while also paying the state a fee for the right to do so.

“You take a piece, (the state) gets a piece of it,” Sweeney said. “The beauty of that is if you want to drive on those lanes, you know how 78 and 80 are parking lots, you might choose an extra five dollars to save half an hour.”

The policy experts didn’t estimate how much money could be generated by establishing the express lanes with variable toll rates. But they suggested any new revenue be used to help address the state pension system’s huge, unfunded liability, which now totals over $100 billion according to some estimates. The group also proposed transferring ownership of the New Jersey Turnpike to the pension system to help take pressure off of its balance sheet, much in the way Christie and lawmakers turned the state lottery into an asset of the retirement funds in 2017.

Route 17 HOT-lane demo

Sarlo, the budget panel leader, said the express lanes could also ease pressure on the TTF, a $16 billion off-budget account that uses revenue from the gas tax, which is now due to increase by 4.3 cents in October because consumption has lagged projections. For example, Sarlo said a planned widening of Route 17 in Bergen County that will be funded by the TTF could benefit from being turned into a HOT-lane demonstration project.

“We’re going to do it anyway, with this or without this,” he said of the road widening.

But express toll lanes have generated a fair share of criticism in some of the places where they’ve already been established because of the impact they can have on low-income motorists who can’t afford to pay a higher rate to avoid heavy traffic. For example, tolls rose to over $15 recently on I-85 HOT lanes in Atlanta, Georgia, a hefty fee to travel some 16 miles of roadway.

The FHA addresses those types of concerns by pointing to research from California, Minnesota, and Washington that suggest the express lanes are generally viewed as equitable among all income brackets. Sweeney suggested adding express toll lanes to the highways could also reduce congestion for all motorists because the new lanes would boost the overall capacity of the highways.

“It actually alleviates traffic because you’re taking traffic that’s normally on that road off the road,” Sweeney said.