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Some worry N.J. toll hikes would hit some harder than others
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Some worry N.J. toll hikes would hit some harder than others

By TOM HESTER Jr. | Associated Press Writer
Newsday -- December 1, 2007

TRENTON, N.J. - From Jersey? Which exit?

It's an old New Jersey joke that magnifies the roles the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway play in the nation's 11th largest state.

But many New Jersey residents don't live near a Turnpike or Parkway off-ramp. Those toll roads snake north-to-south, but not through northwest New Jersey and large swathes of the state's central and southern sections.

That has some arguing New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine's plan to increase tolls on the highways to pay off state debt will disproportionately hit motorists who live in areas that rely most on toll roads.

Both the Turnpike and Parkway, for instance, cut through Bergen, Essex and Middlesex counties, but neither passes through Cumberland, Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex and Warren counties.

"What needs to be understood is that for certain sections of the state, the Parkway and the Turnpike are truly local roads," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex.

Wisniewski, the Assembly Transportation Committee chairman, instead supports increasing the state's 14.5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax.

"The advantage to the gas tax is that it applies to users of all roadways regardless of where you live," he said.

But Corzine wants to create a nonprofit agency that would issue bonds to bring the state enough money to pay half of $32 billion in state debt. The bonds would be paid back by increased tolls.

"One of the things that is an advantage here is that about 50 percent of that is paid for, at least on the Turnpike, by somebody other than New Jersey citizens," Corzine said.

The Democratic governor said he also thinks toll hikes are the way to go because the state must increase tolls regardless to pay for widening the Turnpike and fixing bridges on it and the Tarkway. The state transportation commissioner said a 45 percent toll hike is likely needed to pay for just those needs.

"We're not making this decision in isolation from other kinds of actions that would have to be taken anyway," Corzine said.

The Parkway has had one toll increase and the Turnpike four in the last 50 years. In 1989, Parkway tolls increased to 35 cents per toll booth; the last Turnpike toll increase was in 2003, a 17 percent hike. The average cash-paying automobile driver pays $1.92 per Turnpike trip.

Corzine also noted the state's gas tax is the nation's third lowest, a stellar ranking for a state with America's highest property taxes and, according to nonpartisan Tax Foundation, the nation's third-highest tax burden.

The state's low gas tax is big reason why New Jersey fuel prices are below the national average. Another reason is because New Jersey is home to refineries and fuel depots, making it cheaper to transport gas to stations.

"I don't anticipate having that at this point," Corzine said of a gas tax increase.

Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri said the gas tax would have to increase to as much as 58.5 cents to meet current transportation needs and provide money to improve toll roads and meet other state transportation needs for years to come.

Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance, whose Republican-leaning district includes Hunterdon and Warren counties, is worried Corzine's plan to increase tolls will push more traffic onto smaller, free highways.

Assemblyman Richard Merkt, R-Morris, acknowledged toll increases would have a lesser impact on his constituents, but opposes them anyway.

"I don't use the Turnpike or Garden State Parkway very often and under Corzine's plan I'd avoid both roads like the plague," Merkt said. "But I _ and most people in my area _ take little comfort knowing that other people will bear most of the burden if Corzine's plans are realized."

Peter Woolley, political scientist and pollster at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said Corzine's plan is most opposed _ by 61 percent _ in Passaic and Bergen Counties, which have toll roads.

That's compares to 52 percent in Sussex, Hunterdon, Warren, Morris and Somerset counties, which lack toll roads.

"It's good deal for some people in certain parts of the state and it's a bad deal for other people who are paying more than their fair share," Wisniewski said.

The Parkway is the nation's busiest toll road with the Turnpike the nation's fifth busiest, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

Posted on: 2007/12/2 16:45

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