Gov. Phil Murphy gave strong support to the decision by the Turnpike Authority commissioners to substantially raise the rates on the state’s major toll roads Wednesday, saying it’s about maximizing the hand the state was dealt.
It only begged the question: Why did the governor wait so long to do so?
Murphy had been relatively silent on the plan — which will raise tolls by 36% on the New Jersey Turnpike and 27% on the Garden State Parkway to help pay for $24 billion worth of roadway projects up and down the state, including the widening of the of the Turnpike between exits 1 and 4 and portions of the Parkway between Exit 98 and Exit 163.
Speaking at his daily COVID-19 briefing, Murphy said the hikes were the most responsible way the state could take advantage of what he called the key attributes of our economy: innovation, infrastructure, talent and location.
“We’ve got to dominate those spaces,” he said. “We can’t get an ‘A-’ on that. We’re a corridor state. And I think when people really understand the specifics of it — whether it’s bridges that are way old on the Parkway or Turnpike, whether it’s the two-lane reality in the southern part of the state on the Turnpike, which can now be widened, whether it’s the Newark-Hudson Turnpike extension — when folks see the specifics of what this means, they will understand this is not abstract, this is a real impact.”
Murphy sidestepped the biggest issue of opponents, who questioned whether it was responsible to push through a fare hike during a state shutdown that stifled much of the dissent — and is hurting the pocketbooks of many drivers.
It’s a fair question. One Murphy should have addressed. And for one good reason: He’s right on the issue.
We’re rarely in favor of tax hikes, but on this one — like the gas tax — the state’s infrastructure needs are too pressing.
Having public hearings was not going to slow this idea. And delaying construction projects — which now will begin in the fall — would only delay putting millions of dollars into the economy.
Most importantly, it puts millions of dollars into the infrastructure that our economy desperately needs. We are the leader in e-commerce. We need to make sure we stay there. That’s why not only labor leaders, but business leaders have been behind this proposal all along.
There is opposition.
Regina Egea, the head of Garden State Initiative — which always offers sound fiscal advice on government — said Murphy should veto the plan, which will raise the rate of cars driving the entire Turnpike from $13.85 to $18.85 and most Parkway tolls from $1.50 to $1.90.
The increase is far greater for trucks, which now will pay $77.30 for the Turnpike (up from $56.85) — and it comes with a provision for yearly raises, too.
“On the heels of our treasurer’s dour outlook on our economy’s recovery, a 27% increase in tolls for the Parkway and 36% for the Turnpike will further punish our middle- and lower-income workers and slow the recovery of our local small businesses,” Egea said in a statement.
“This vote by the Turnpike commissioners takes $524 million out of the hands of New Jersey residents who need it now more than ever to pay for everyday essentials like housing and food. That’s where the ‘stimulus’ needs to stay until New Jersey has a recovery plan that includes the middle- and lower-income workers, not in the hands of the Turnpike bureaucracy to spend on their favored suppliers.”
Murphy acknowledge that labor will benefit — and acknowledged that he wears his support of labor as a badge of honor — but argued the hikes serve a far greater good than just one constituency.
“I’m not doing this because it’s necessarily popular,” he said. “And I appreciate the strain that people are under right now. That’s never been in question. But we need a state that’s standing here, a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now.
“This is about maximizing the hand that we have been dealt. And we have so underplayed that hand as a state for so long and it has hurt us in so many ways in our economy — in exactly the part of the economy that’s hurting right now, the middle class.
“So, yes, you do have a lot of folks who are going to get good-paying jobs to support their families out of this, but this — maybe not directly today, but indirectly — is a huge boost underpinning our economic prospects going forward.”
Murphy also had answers for environmentalists, as he disagreed with the idea the projects are inconsistent with his green energy policies, as they will put more cars on the road.
“I’d say two things on the environment,” he said. “No. 1, there’s a whole lot of idling that goes on of cars and, over time, once this plan is executed, that will go down dramatically. There are untold emissions that are coming out as a result of that idling and congestion.
“And secondly, the Turnpike Authority — and this is not by accident — (is) going to put a lot of electric vehicle charging infrastructure into their rest areas.”
Murphy said the plans’ pluses carry the day.
“We are a corridor state, we’re the densest state in the nation,” he said. “To be able to maximize that hand and at the same time do it in a responsible way — and I believe it is in a responsible way —that gives us a huge asset that we have heretofore not had for far too long.”