UPDATED March 31, 2020: The South Jersey Transportation Authority has now put details of its capital plan and toll-hike proposal online, including the proposed new toll rates and FAQs. The SJTA also will use this page to provide livestreaming of public hearings on the plan, which are set to take place on Wednesday, April 1 and Thursday, April 2.
The Atlantic City Expressway is the latest New Jersey toll road for which a plan is in the works to hike tolls in the middle of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
Among critics of the move is a Republican state senator, who characterized it as a stealthy attempt to raise the toll “under the cover of a crisis.”
The South Jersey Transportation Authority, the agency that operates the 44-mile expressway, has scheduled three public hearings this week to set the stage for a capital-spending program that would increase tolls by nearly 60 cents for an average trip in the future.
The agency’s proposal would also allow for automatic annual toll hikes beginning in 2022, according to a public notice posted on the SJTA’s website.
The push by the SJTA to enact the toll hikes comes even as New Jersey is grappling with a significant statewide public-health emergency brought on by the spread of COVID-19. So far, 13,386 positive cases have been reported by state health officials, and a total of 161 deaths.
It’s unclear how the SJTA will manage the public hearings — which are required by law — amid the strict social-distancing measures and a state of emergency ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy, who’s repeatedly said the virus has put the state on a “war footing.” In addition to closing all nonessential businesses and schools across the state, Murphy has also banned all public gatherings to prevent further spreading of the disease. He is also urging people to stay home unless trips are absolutely necessary.
Agency urged to reconsider
Murphy’s office did not respond to a request for comment Friday on whether the SJTA can hold public hearings without violating his strict social-distancing orders. But at least one state lawmaker has publicly urged the SJTA to pull back immediately amid the disruption caused by the pandemic.
“With families losing their jobs and businesses closing their doors, it is unfair and unreasonable to expect the public to fully evaluate SJTA’s plan and offer substantive comment on your toll hike,” Sen. Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) wrote in a letter Friday to SJTA chair Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, a Murphy appointee who is the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.
“Essentially, the SJTA is slipping in a toll hike under the cover of a crisis,” wrote Brown.
Gutierrez-Scaccetti recently participated in a set of public hearings to advance a toll-hike proposal for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates both the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. That agency, which Gutierrez-Scaccetti also chairs, provided a livestream option for viewing the hearings and a way for motorists to submit comments via email.
Reached by email on Friday, SJTA spokesman Mark Amorosi did not answer questions submitted by NJ Spotlight about whether it is appropriate to go forward with public hearings this week amid the ongoing state of emergency brought on by the coronavirus outbreak.
The Atlantic City Expressway traverses Atlantic, Camden and Gloucester counties, serving as a primary east-west roadway in southern New Jersey that many use for travel between Atlantic City and the suburbs of Philadelphia. It generates nearly $81 million in annual revenue for the SJTA, according to the agency’s latest annual report, which covers the 2018 calendar year.
The public notice posted online by the SJTA indicates the proposed capital plan would pay for 11 different projects, including resurfacing, interchange improvements, road widening and lighting upgrades. The capital plan would also support design of a proposed Camden-Gloucester light-rail line, according to the notice.
Currently, it costs $3.75 to travel the length of the expressway. Under the proposal, the average toll that motorists pay would go up initially by 57 cents. In addition, the plan would allow for annual “indexing,” beginning in 2022, that would allow for increases of up to 3% annually. Tolls have not been increased since 2008.
Two of SJTA’s public hearings are scheduled for this Wednesday — the first from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. at the agency’s administration building at the Frank S. Farley Service Plaza in Mullica Township in Atlantic County, the second from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Winslow Township Municipal Complex in Camden County.
The SJTA is also planning a public hearing for Thursday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Deptford Township Municipal Building in Gloucester County. The agency’s public notice does not indicate whether any arrangements have been made for online viewing. The SJTA has allowed for comments via email.
Comments can also be sent via mail, courier or hand delivery to: Executive Director, South Jersey Transportation Authority, Farley Service Plaza, P. O. Box 351, Hammonton, New Jersey 08037. All comments on the toll-hike plan are due by April 13, according to the notice.
The NJTA’s toll-hike proposal calls for increases of 36% on the turnpike, and 27% on the parkway. Indexing increases of up to 3% annually would also be allowed, beginning in 2022. These toll hikes would help support a $24 billion capital program for major widening projects, and the plan could get final approval by the end of April.
NJTA’s plan was pitched as economic stimulus
During public hearings the NJTA held for its capital plan earlier this month, Gutierrez-Scaccetti pitched the proposed highway work as a potential economic stimulus at a time of significant economic upheaval amid the ongoing pandemic, including rising unemployment.
But others have criticized the NJTA for moving forward with its plan to hike tolls when thousands of New Jersey residents have lost their jobs or are facing other economic hardships due to the pandemic. The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported last week that it had processed a record-high 155,815 new claims for unemployment benefits the previous week.
Now, it’s the SJTA that’s receiving such criticism, including from Brown, the state senator.
“The timing of your proposal couldn’t be worse,” Brown wrote in his letter to Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
Also lobbing complaints at the SJTA is Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey’s Sierra Club organization. He is accusing the agency of “deliberately playing games to keep the public out” of its hearings to dampen any criticism.
“It is shameful that the South Jersey Transportation Authority is using the coronavirus outbreak to push ahead with their capital plan,” Tittel said.
Amorosi, the SJTA spokesman, when reached by email Friday, did not provide answers to questions submitted by NJ Spotlight about the appropriateness of seeking toll hikes while the state’s economic conditions are souring. Other basic questions left unanswered were about the proposed capital plan, such as how much total capital spending would be supported by the proposed toll hikes and when the toll hikes could go into effect. The public notice posted to the SJTA website does indicate additional information about the capital plan may be posted online before the hearings.