Turnpike Authority’s capital plan is critical infrastructure investment that needs to move forward

New Jersey hasn’t increased its investment in the New Jersey Turnpike or Garden State Parkway through toll rate changes since 2012, and it is beginning to show. Yet, special interest groups in Trenton continue their efforts to delay action on the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s $24 billion capital investment plan.

When drivers pay a toll on the Turnpike, Garden State Parkway or Atlantic City Expressway, that money goes toward critical construction and rehabilitation of roadways and bridges. That includes pothole repairs, lane widening and interchange improvements that increase safety, relieve congestion and improve driver access onto and off both highways. But, while traffic patterns have changed and vehicle volumes have increased significantly, New Jersey still is operating from a capital improvement plan that was written more than a decade ago.

File photos
Greg Lalevee.

The Turnpike Authority recognized these concerns and put forth a new capital plan. Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration also saw the need and correctly has allowed the authority to pursue the public process now — not eight months from now. Understanding the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, both have thoughtfully and methodically engaged public comment and input by continuing to pursue the public process in today’s new reality. As is true with this process during even the best of times, all comments and considerations have been invited through written testimony that is confirmed and verified.

That is why Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative 825 — the labor-management fund of Operating Engineers Local 825 — has urged the governor to continue his administration’s efforts to realize these critical improvements.

“As we continue to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, we strongly urge the governor and his administration to stand fast in their plan to support upgrading New Jersey’s critical infrastructure. This includes the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway,” stated Greg Lalevee, business manager of IUOE825 and Chairman of ELEC825. “Year after year, we watch our state crumble before our eyes. Now is the time to put New Jersey’s hard-working middle-class back to work.”

“Investing in our roads and bridges, especially those as critical as the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, doesn’t negate further investment in mass transit and rail. So, we don’t need to hold up improvements on existing roads to plan for investment elsewhere. We have an obligation to the hundreds of thousands of citizens who travel these roadways now.”

While the state implemented a plan to replenish New Jersey’s depleted Transportation Trust Fund several years ago, it is important to note that none of those dollars — by law — can be utilized for improvements to the Turnpike or other toll roads. Although primarily intended for capital projects, money from that fund has been diverted to support mass transit operations and overhead — New Jersey Transit, in particular. Yet, improvements and repairs to the Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway rely entirely on revenue derived from toll collections.

“As the state begins to implement its Energy Master Plan, we also need to anticipate hundreds of thousands of new electric vehicles on these highways. That will require highway redesigns, expansion and new construction,” stated Mark Longo, director of ELEC825. “And, since these vehicles don’t utilize gas, nor do they support the Transportation Trust Fund in any way, funding for such major infrastructure will rely on other investment dollars. In the case of toll roads, that means rate adjustments for those using the highways.”

Mark Longo.

“Let’s face it, New Jersey has been challenged in keeping up with the necessary design and infrastructure improvements,” said Longo. “It’s no secret that the American Society of Civil Engineers consistently has given New Jersey’s roads and bridges a ‘D+’ rating, specifically noting a lack of funding as one reason for the rating. That’s why increasing investment for the GSP and Turnpike for the first time in eight years makes sense now.”

If New Jersey does not support this rate change now, the state will face increased road congestion, crumbling roads and bridges, and growing safety concerns. And, New Jersey will be missing out on an opportunity to fuel our economy. Time and again, it’s been proven that, when it comes to the state’s roads and bridges, New Jersey realizes a 3-to-1 return on investment for our dollars spent.

It is important to note that, during the last capital investment conducted by the authority, traffic congestion was eliminated between Exit 6 and Exit 9 — a stretch of roadway previously notorious for traffic jams. That area of the New Jersey Turnpike now is a “highly sought-after commercial real estate location,” according to one of the nation’s largest real estate brokerage firms. Major multinational companies such as Amazon now have invested here because of our improved infrastructure and proximity to major markets.

“At this time, particularly — as we start to emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic — we need to be practical and recognize the changing reality. We possibly could see more vehicles on the road until individuals become comfortable again with large volumes of people in mass transit vehicles,” added Longo. “While we still should advocate for further investment in our transit infrastructure as well, we need to be sure that our existing highway system is in shape to handle a possible increased number of vehicles for the time being.”

Greg Lalevee is the business manager of Operating Engineers 825 and the chairman of the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative 825. He represents more than 7,000 highly trained and experienced heavy equipment operators, mechanics, and surveyors.