Lawmakers say toll hike hearings ‘outrageous’ during pandemic
Some state lawmakers are criticizing the Murphy administration for continuing to push forward with plans to raise tolls on New Jersey’s three toll roads despite the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Sparsely attended public hearings were conducted March 18 regarding plans to raise tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. This week, three hearings will be held online only for similar hikes on the Atlantic City Expressway, with in-person meetings scrapped due to the ban on gatherings.
“There’s no rational, reasonable, thinking person who think that that’s OK. It just isn’t,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “You can’t think that it’s OK to move forward with a major policy like this in the midst of a global pandemic. Come on.”
Public hearings are required for toll-hike proposals. O’Scanlon said the hearings might conform with the letter of the law but not its spirit and that it’s “outrageous” to proceed with them at a time the merits of the idea can’t be reasonably assessed.
“Even with the livestream, people are concerned about family members dying from a pandemic. As much as we all are very passionate about some of these issues, nobody’s mind is on these issues right now,” he said. “… It would be an absolute punch in the throat if this plan moves forward right now.”
At least eight other Republican lawmakers have also expressed opposition to the toll hike hearings.
The hearings will be broadcast live on sjta.com. People can participate by calling 888- 747-5272 and providing the conference entry code 493192. Public comments will also be allowed through April 20 – through the mail, by emailing email@example.com or by calling 609-965-6060, extension 277, during regular business hours.
Gov. Phil Murphy said he required those accommodations in order for the hearing to proceed.
“I’ve got no insight into the actual hearings in process, but the things that I cared about was we didn’t have people gathering, that we had plenty of opportunity for folks to have comment,” Murphy said.
For the Expressway, toll hikes that at some plazas exceed 50% are planned. Current tolls that cost $3 would increase to $4.25. Those costing 75 cents would increase to $1.25. The two 40-cent toll plazas would begin charging 60 cents. Starting in 2022, tolls could increase by up to 3% a year to keep pace with inflation.
The South Jersey Transportation Authority says the higher fares would help finance nearly $300 million in projects, not including the to-be-determined costs for promised design work on the Glassboro-Camden Light Rail and upgrading the Atlantic City Rail Line.
The other listed projects include resurfacing the road, adding a third lane to a 13-mile section from Interchange 31 to the road’s western end at Route 42, converting to cashless tolls, replacing the ramp that connects the road to the Garden State Parkway and building a new interchange directly connecting to Atlantic City International Airport.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.