The (Turnpike Authority) Toll of COVID-19

A lot of things are nice to do, but timing counts.

Phil Murphy clearly disagreed with that notion today when he was asked – more than once – about a state Turnpike Authority vote to sharply increase tolls on the Parkway and Turnpike when the pandemic has many residents struggling financially.

The governor more or less repeated the same answer three times. New Jersey, he said, is a “corridor state,” and the best way to help the economy is to make sure that “corridor” is in good shape.

He said the estimated $24 billion increase would support many important projects – a Turnpike extension through always congested Newark and Hudson County, modernizing many bridges on the Parkway and road widening in the southern part of the state.

And in the end, the state’s economy and all who depend on it for jobs will be the winners.

“This is not abstract,” the governor said, expressing hope people will see the value of the improvements over time.

But doesn’t enhancing automobile travel clash with his pro-environmental views?

Nope, Murphy said, pointing out that congestion leads to slow-moving and idling vehicles, thereby increasing emissions and pollution. Wider roads and a smoother ride can remedy that, he said. He said it’s necessary to move ahead now, because he was elected to fix things, not “kick the can down the road.”

Many fair-minded people probably would agree with what the governor was saying. In the abstract, that is. After all, roads and bridges need to be modern, safe and well-maintained.

But then we come to the timing.

Over a few years, Turnpike tolls will increase by an average of $1.30 and Parkway tolls will jump from $1.50 to $1.90 at the main toll plazas. And it also seems a certainty that tolls on the Atlantic City Expressway will be going up too.

These increases are being approved when skyrocketing unemployment has many people worried about meeting every day expenses. In what world is this a good time for the state to increase just about anything? But that’s not the whole story.

As a public agency, the Turnpike Authority operates in public – officially at least. To that end, public hearings are necessary before tolls are raised. Recall that in this case, the authority held its hearing during the early stages of the pandemic when no one could attend. Commenting electronically was not the same.

This was brought up at the time; the governor said only that he was concerned about “social distancing.”  He simply disageed with the suggestion the authority was pushing something through when most were
occupied elsewhere. Part of Murphy’s explanation today was that the state’s infrastructure has been ignored in the past. Fine.

He’s probably right.

But those who drive around the great Garden State also remember the history of toll increases, or more specifically, when then-Gov. Christie and still-Gov. Cuomo agreed almost 10 years ago to drastically raise tolls on Port Authority bridges and tunnels. This news came down on a Friday in August. And it culminated in the toll reaching an unconscionable $15. Well, at least that was not during apandemic, but it was still a kick in the gut for the average motorist, sort of like a kick that keeps on giving.

And since we’re now in a pandemic, families all over the region are adjusting to the current reality. How about the authority adjusting itself and delaying action on toll increases?

While talking today about the toll hike, the governor did say something that’s definitely true:

“I’m not doing this because it’s necessarily popular.”

He need not worry about that.

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