Decidedly mixed reaction to decision to raise tolls

The votes by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the South Jersey Transportation Authority boards of commissioners Wednesday to raise tolls on three major roadways to help fund a $24 billion capital plan for infrastructure improvements drew strong reactions.

The plan calls for widenings of all three roads as well as many other initiatives.

The increase — 36% on the New Jersey Turnpike and 27% on the Garden State Parkway — is the first in the state since 2012.

Opponents cited the fact that the increase came during a shutdown of much of the economy. Proponents said the increased construction would help the state revive its economy.

Gov. Phil Murphy has signaled he will approve the vote.

“This is about maximizing the hand that we have been dealt,” he said. “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.

Here is a sampling of responses from politicians, labor leaders and heads of business groups and think tanks, presented in alphabetical order:

Jane Asselta, vice president of Southern New Jersey Development Council:

“The SNJDC actively supports initiatives that promote economic opportunities for our members and our region. Therefore, we applaud the decision to move forward with the SJTA and NJTA capital plans. South Jersey will now have the opportunity to support business development and encourage domestic manufacturing, creating good jobs and spurring economic growth throughout the region.”

State Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerville)

“Bureaucrats who control our highways are quietly fast-tracking massive toll hikes on New Jersey drivers when nobody is looking. While our daily commutes may look different today, these toll increases will slam drivers with higher costs as our state reopens, making New Jersey an even more expensive place to live, work and raise a family. There has been nothing transparent about the process. It’s absolutely shameful.”

Tom Bracken, CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce:

“Moving forward with the $24 billion capital plan proposed by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority is exactly the type of forward-thinking investment that can help the state economically after this pandemic. This will provide funding for vital improvements and long overdue expansion for both the Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. Yet, it also will be one of the sparks to reignite our economy.”

Regina Egea, head of Garden State Initiative:

“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.

“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.”

Tom Forkin, founder of Atlantic City Taxpayers Association (to NJ Advance Media)

“A toll increase will have a chilling effect on the flow of tourists down the A.C. Expressway. It’s going to be a problem. Increasing tolls will drive what business is left out of Atlantic City. It will be a death knell.”

Greg Lalevee, business manager of IUOE Local 825 and chairman of the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative:

“Today’s decision to move forward with the capital plans is a welcome one for our members and an important step forward in rebuilding New Jersey’s economy. We can safely work to overhaul our infrastructure during this pandemic, and both capital plans will help us accomplish that goal. This goes far beyond creating thousands of good-paying jobs — it’s also about providing the foundation for our economy to grow. We applaud Gov. Murphy, (Transportation) Commissioner (Diane) Gutierrez-Scaccetti and the authorities for doing the right thing and approving these capital plans.”

Mark Longo, director of the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative:

“Today’s decision to move forward with the NJTA and SJTA capital plans is an essential step forward toward rebuilding our economy and repairing our infrastructure. These investments will put thousands of people to work in good-paying jobs, support the flow of goods and services on our roads, and give New Jersey residents the confidence that our roads and bridges are safe to travel. We thank Gov. Murphy, Commissioner Gutierrez-Scaccetti, and both of the authorities for moving forward with these programs at such a crucial time. Together, we can rebuild our roads and rebuild our economy.”

Jack Kocsis Jr., CEO of Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey:

“Gov. Murphy and the NJTA have made the right decision to move forward with capital plans to improve our roads and bridges. The ripple effect of these investments will be felt throughout New Jersey’s business community, putting residents to work, growing our economy and improving the flow of goods and services across the state as we recover from the pandemic. We’re thankful for this decision, and we are confident New Jersey will thrive with these much-needed investments.”

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Holmdel), Asw. Serena DiMaso (R-Holmdel) and Asm. Gerry Scharfenberger (R-Red Bank):

“It is completely astounding that the Turnpike Authority believed they should move forward with this toll hike process. We are in the midst of a pandemic. Loved ones have been lost. People have been confined to their homes for more than two months. Hundreds of thousands are currently worrying about whether their businesses will be able to reopen in time for their livelihood to be saved.

“It does not matter whether or not someone believes that a toll increase is necessary. Because the ultimate issue is that proceeding with a policy that requires public hearings during a pandemic is ridiculous and offensive. Currently, people are completely occupied worrying about their health, lives and livelihoods. Over a million residents have applied for unemployment. To move forward with a proposed toll hike is truly unconscionable.”

Jeff Tittel, state Sierra Club director (to NJ Advance Media)

“We’re supposed to be protecting the Pinelands, not paving the Pinelands. Hundreds of people wanted more time. You didn’t listen to anyone, you decided to push this through.”