Poll: New Jerseyans doubt revenue from toll hike actually will go to improving roads

While only 16% of New Jerseyans feel the state has enough money for highway maintenance without raising tolls, more residents are opposed to the recent increases than support them — for one big reason: They don’t have confidence the extra money collected ultimately will go to improving the roads.

A distrust of policymakers is at the heart of opposition for many. This and other findings about attitudes toward the state’s transportation infrastructure are based on a recent statewide survey of adults in New Jersey conducted by the Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll, in conjunction with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825.

Almost half (49%) of the more than 800 residents interviewed in late June said they are opposed to the recent increases, while 38% support them.

Among those who said no to the added expense, the dominant reason for their opposition is distrust. Fifty percent said they doubt that the money will be funneled into road repairs, even though that was the justification given for the toll increases. Another quarter (24%) are already too strapped financially to afford the rate hike. Fewer (16%) believe the state has enough money for highway maintenance without tapping motorists, and 8% think the highways are just fine.

Krista Jenkins, director of the FDU Poll and professor of politics and government, said the public’s opinion cannot change the hikes — those are locked in. But, she said the state still should take note of the results.

“The hikes are a done deal and will take effect after Sept. 13, so what the public wants is moot,” she said. “However, it is important to note that many who are opposed base their opposition on the distrust that the toll hike revenues will actually be spent on road improvements.

“What this means is the state’s use of the money for road improvements needs to be paired with better communication. In other words, messaging must be far more than a sign saying, ‘Your tax dollars at work.’”

Greg Lalevee, business manager, IUOE 825, agreed.

“Toll increases are never popular, and state leaders should be commended for making the hard choice in difficult times,” he said. “But there is a road forward for motorists to support the increases if they can see their investment being put to good use.

“That means two things — the state must follow through on its promise to dedicate the revenue to road improvements, and they must let New Jerseyans know how the funds are being spent.”

The same survey finds a slight uptick in the perceived condition and safety of New Jersey’s roads, bridges and tunnels. Although the numbers remain well below what would be considered a passing grade, 23% of New Jerseyans said the quality of the state’s transportation infrastructure is getting better, with a similar number (22%) saying the same about the safety of roads, bridges and tunnels. These numbers are up slightly from last year, when about one in seven agreed with improved quality (16%) and safety (15%). Most continue to believe both the quality (49%) and safety (50%) of roads, bridges and tunnels have remained the same.

“Obviously, the intervening event between last year and today is the pandemic, which has kept so many off the roads,” Jenkins said. “Whether the numbers continue to improve once things return to normal is an open question.”

Similar to last year’s survey results, clear majorities are not happy with state government when it comes to maintenance and using designated funds wisely. Half said the state is not doing enough to maintain and repair New Jersey’s roads, bridges, and tunnels — down from 63% in 2019, and three-fourths believed policymakers need to do a better job allocating money for repairing and maintaining roads, bridges and tunnels.

“These perspectives unite even partisans, something we don’t find all that often in today’s polarized landscape,” Jenkins said. “The improved perception of the state’s maintenance efforts, coupled with the slight improvement in attitudes toward safety and quality, could be a case of absence making the heart grow fonder in the COVID era. Time will tell, as two observations does not quite make a trend.”