Despite Gov. Phil Murphy's original reservations, it looks as if drivers who regularly use the main bridge connecting South Jersey with Delaware are going to be paying more in tolls to fund major capital improvements.
Murphy and Delaware Gov. John Carney announced a resolution on Wednesday in the ongoing project to fund safety and infrastructure upgrades on the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which connects two of the most heavily trafficked highways in the Northeast. The proposed toll increase means passenger cars will be paying $5, up from $4.
A statement from Murphy’s office said the proposal will generate $32 million in increased annual toll revenue, compared with an earlier $34 million proposal vetoed by Murphy in January. The most recent toll increase came in July 2011, with the cost for cars and small trucks jumping from $3 to $4.
“This modified proposal allows us to ensure the safe passage of travelers from New Jersey and Delaware, while addressing the commuting costs of our residents, critical goals shared by both states,” Murphy said in a statement.
The DRBA (Delaware River and Bay Authority) is a bi-state agency that can only take action such as raising tolls when the governors of both states that they connect, sign off. When faced with a five-year $440 million capital improvement plan, the agency proposed a toll increase to raise additional revenue for critical infrastructure improvements — estimated at $270 million.
Murphy, however, vetoed that proposed $1 toll increase in January, saying in a letter to the DRBA that he was “not ready to support any toll increases at the Delaware Memorial Bridge that extend beyond the bridge’s critical safety enhancements.” That was the first increase to be vetoed by a Delaware or New Jersey governor.
According to the DRBA, the bridge is the agency’s critical tolling asset, generating 75 percent of its operating revenue and 100 percent of net revenues. The agency has noted that “all infrastructure projects undertaken by the DRBA are essentially funded by the Bridge.”
Murphy’s veto resulted in a “credit negative for DRBA” from Wall Street credit-rating firm Moody’s Investors Service most likely causing the governor to take notice. His veto further strained tensions between the governor and Senate President Steve Sweeney; the bridge agency operates in Sweeney’s region of influence.
In its January 17 Weekly Credit Outlook for Public Finance report, Moody’s noted that “although the authority’s willingness to raise rates with support from its governing board has been well demonstrated, the recent toll rate veto signals political risks that constrain the authority’s ability to raise rates in a timely fashion to meet future obligations.”
The modified proposal that Murphy agreed to this week includes an EZ-Pass discount for passenger cars (25 cents off the $5 toll) and an increase in the “frequent traveler” (20 trips in 90 days) discount rate from $1.25 to $1.75.
Murphy also noted in his statement that the DRBA agreed to “cancel or defer infrastructure projects that would be value-added to their operation, but not vital or essential for the particular facility.”
The funding will go to the following major capital projects planned at Delaware Memorial Bridge and Cape May – Lewes Ferry:
bridge paint removal and recoating ($48.2 million),
suspension rope replacement ($24.5 million),
bridge steelwork repairs ($40.5 million),
pin and link rehabilitation on both bridge structures ($19.7 million),
ship collision protection system ($45.2 million),
bridge deck repair ($21.5 million),
transfer bridge repairs at the Cape May – Lewes Ferry ($4.3 million),
ferry-repowering program ($9.5 million).
The changes would go into effect on May 1, 2019. The resolution now goes to the DRBA Commission for a vote at its meeting on Wednesday, February 20.