Even amid an unprecedented global health crisis, officials say the show must go on, at least when it comes to a multibillion-dollar capital plan that could soon hit motorists on the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike with hefty toll increases.
Public hearings on the building program — totaling as much as $24 billion to be generated by raising tolls at least 27% on the parkway and 36% on the turnpike — are still scheduled for today, despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s declaration of a state of emergency across New Jersey during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Murphy has repeatedly implored residents to stay home if they can to prevent further spread of the disease, including Tuesday when he said, “This is no time for business as usual.”
But he also isn’t calling for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates both the turnpike and the parkway, to reschedule two public hearings planned for today as a precursor to the proposed toll hikes, which could go into effect later this year.
Instead, the governor pointed to arrangements for a livestream of the hearings that the NJTA will make available on its website, as well as assurances that officials would restrict attendance to the 50-person limit Murphy has urged for any public gathering across the state to help prevent spread of the disease, which is responsible for three deaths and hundreds of infections in the state. The two public hearings are planned for locations in Woodbridge in Middlesex County and Sicklerville in Camden County.
“I have very little insight into those hearings other than I said it was very important to me, and to us, that they not exceed the limits that we put in place,” Murphy said Tuesday as he and other state officials answered questions from reporters during a daily coronavirus briefing.
Despite the online arrangement, and the canceling of a third hearing, which was to be held in Mahwah on Thursday, some are still calling on the turnpike authority to put the entire hearing process on hold amid the coronavirus outbreak.
This comes as many New Jersey residents are dealing this week with serious issues related to both personal health and a new need to make arrangements for children and other loved ones whose lives have been disrupted by widespread school closures and other statewide restrictions ordered by Murphy earlier in the week.
Jeff Tittel, New Jersey director of the Sierra Club, called the decision to carry on with the NJTA’s public hearings “shameful.”
“A lot of people are stuck at home and they may not have any access to the internet,” Tittel said. “This is classism.”
Meanwhile, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 8,000 people around the world, has also raised new questions about whether it’s an appropriate time for the agency to consider launching such an ambitious, multiyear capital program at all.
Years of major projects
The plan calls for more than 50 major projects to be undertaken on both toll roads in rolling, five-year increments. Murphy on Tuesday pointed to the potential for increased unemployment in New Jersey and suggested it would likely take a significant federal stimulus plan to fully address the economic upheaval caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
Earlier this week, members of the state Assembly also highlighted the looming uncertainty for New Jersey businesses and workers as they passed a series of economic-relief bills on an emergency basis.
Asked about those concerns, Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the turnpike authority, said the public hearings are “about funding a capital program that will sustain tens of thousands of jobs in the coming years and help maintain a transportation network that provides a competitive edge for New Jersey in the regional, national, and global economies.”
“In these uncertain economic times, it is important to move ahead with the process in a responsible and transparent manner,” Feeney said.
He also said those attending the hearings today would be asked to “adhere to social distancing,” which is the precaution of leaving at least 6 feet of space between any two individuals.
Impact on tolls
In all, the NJTA toll-hike proposal calls for as much as $24 billion in spending, far outpacing the $7 billion capital program that the agency has been working under for roughly the past decade.
On the turnpike, where the toll for the average trip now costs $3.50, the proposed increase would bring the average toll up to $4.80, according to NJTA estimates. For parkway motorists, the average toll of $1.11 would go up to $1.41, according to the estimates.
But even after the toll hikes would be enacted, NJTA officials note that per-mile tolls on the parkway would rank 14th among more than 40 peer toll roads nationally, and on the turnpike they would rank 27th among peers.
However, the NJTA is also seeking to implement an indexing policy that would allow tolls to be raised up to 3% each year, starting in 2022. The provision has the potential to drive the increases much higher, especially with a compounding effect of the annual increases if they occur.
That hearkens back to a plan floated more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Jon Corzine that sought to make regular highway-toll hikes part of a broader effort to better fund state transportation-infrastructure investments while also addressing other fiscal challenges, including the state’s significant debt.
The funding raised by the new toll hikes would be used to underwrite a range of major projects, according to a 45-page summary of the capital program posted by the agency online. A series of parkway widening projects will cost more than $5 billion, and a series of turnpike widening projects will run another $6 billion. The capital plan also calls for a $2.86-billion bridge-replacement initiative spanning both highways, and $900 million to ensure all toll plazas on both roads can accommodate electronic tolling or pay-by-mail.
Discussions about the capital plan drew wide praise from representatives of the state’s construction industry who spoke during the turnpike authority’s public meeting in February, according to meeting minutes posted online, even as few details were made available to the public at the time.
But Tittel said the capital plan has the potential to increase sprawl and dampen New Jersey’s battle to reverse the ongoing impact of climate change.
“This is something from the 1950s,” Tittel said.
When the proposed toll hikes would go into effect is not clear right now. According to NJTA rules, a public hearing must be held at least 45 days before any toll hikes can be levied.
How to take part
For those who would like to attend Wednesday’s hearings in person, the first is being held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the turnpike authority’s headquarters at 1 Turnpike Plaza in Woodbridge. The second will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Dennis Flyer Memorial Theater on the campus of Camden County College in Sicklerville. No more than 50 people will be allowed on location at either site, according to Feeney.
In addition to its livestream, the NJTA is also taking public input via email using the address NJTAPublicComments@njta.com. The agency is also accepting written comments by mail or courier, which should be addressed to: Executive Director, New Jersey Turnpike Authority, 1 Turnpike Plaza, P.O. Box 5042, Woodbridge, NJ 07095.
The deadline for submitting comments has been extended to 5 p.m. on April 3.
“With livestreaming and an extended period for the public to submit comments as part of the hearing record, we believe we will be able to protect public health without limiting public participation,” Feeney said. “People will be able to learn about the proposal and make their feelings known without having the sole option of attending the meeting in person.”
The capital program and its associated toll hikes have been put forward at a time when Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has proposed a new state budget for fiscal year 2021 that would continue to tap the NJTA to help subsidize the state’s beleaguered mass-transit agency. Murphy’s state budget plan calls for another $129 million to be redirected from the NJTA to New Jersey Transit’s operating budget in the fiscal year that begins in July. That would push the total transferred between the two agencies over the last decade above $2 billion.
Hike in gas tax also possible
The potential toll hikes also come when New Jersey motorists may be facing another gas-tax increase later this year. While it’s still too soon to know for sure, the latest revenue projections from the state Department of Treasury have raised concerns since the gas-tax rate is now tied to overall revenue and consumption goals that were established under a 2016 law. The gas tax supports the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which operates separately from the state budget to fund road, bridge and rail-network improvements throughout New Jersey.
Unlike other state highways that qualify for TTF funding, the toll roads must pay for all capital investment using NJTA resources, which are primarily raised through tolls.
Murphy — who has the authority to reject the toll hike proposal or scale it back — did not weigh in during Tuesday’s coronavirus press briefing on the question of whether the toll hikes should be shelved amid the unfolding economic uncertainty tied to the ongoing disease outbreak. His office also did not comment when asked about that issue later in the day.
A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) stressed that the planned toll increases are still “proposals.”
“The speaker trusts that the (NJTA) Board will keep the best interests of the people of New Jersey in the forefront of their decision,” said spokesman Kevin McArdle on Tuesday. Coughlin also “strongly suggests that people stay home and watch the livestream” of the public hearings, he added.
A spokesman for Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) declined to comment Tuesday.
But Tittel, from the Sierra Club, warned that Murphy may be tempting fate by pushing a toll-hike plan when many economists are predicting a recession has either begun or is about to. He pointed to Corzine, who lost his bid for reelection in 2009 as the effects of the Great Recession took hold.
“Here we are again with a toll hike and the economy going south,” Tittel said. “Sound familiar?”