On behalf of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, the nation’s largest statewide business association whose members provide over 1 million jobs, we would like to offer our testimony on the proposed toll hikes on the New Jersey Turnpike and Parkway.
First, NJBIA is disappointed that these public hearings have not been postponed given the serious nature of the coronavirus pandemic and the need to maintain social distancing. Governor Phil Murphy has banned gatherings of over 50 people in order to ensure public health protocols are maintained. There is nothing so urgent in this toll increase that it supersedes public health and the right of the people to be present and testify on such an important issue. Given the economic uncertainty caused by this viral pandemic, we also suggest you delay any decisions until after the outbreak is resolved so that the impact of the proposal may be fully evaluated in what may be a new economic world.
We also note the Turnpike Authority’s Strategic Plan for 2020-2029 was not released until late afternoon the day before the first scheduled hearing. We appreciate that the comment period has been extended and we reserve the right to submit additional comments based on our review of the Strategic Plan.
NJBIA supports continued upgrades and maintenance of our transportation infrastructure and we believe that tolls, as user fees, are the appropriate means by which infrastructure projects should be funded. Therefore, we are in general support of the New Jersey Turnpike and Parkway’s proposal to increase tolls in a manner necessary to support critical infrastructure projects on both toll roads, provided toll revenues are not diverted for other purposes.
We have, so to speak, been down this road before. We are all too acutely aware of past abuses by the toll roads and by State government, in multiple administrations, where monies raised are not always spent prudently and appropriately or, even worse, misappropriated and spent in areas unrelated to the reason to raise tolls.
We are also aware that there are significant infrastructure and operational needs for NJ TRANSIT, which has been using Turnpike toll road monies to help support its capital and operational programs. While this diversion of monies may be appropriate given NJ TRANSIT’s crucial role in taking cars off our roads, bridges, and tunnels, we cannot ignore the fact that funding streams have been intertwined.
For too many decades, we have seen funds diverted for other projects, or into the General Fund. We have seen roads “sold” to the Turnpike Authority so toll or bond monies could support State spending. We are aware that bond monies at times have been imprudently used for short-term projects or operational costs, there have been too many inefficiencies, and there is a better need for the implementation of “best practices.”
We are also aware of the need to address funding for our non-toll road transportation network, given that the Transportation Trust Fund dedication will need to be reauthorized and the push toward electric vehicles will diminish the gas tax as a reliable and fair funding source. We are also very much aware of the need for tens of billions of dollars to improve our water infrastructure over the next couple of decades, monies which will likely be raised from many of the same people paying for this toll increase.
Before we move forward with another toll increase, we need to step back and look at all of our infrastructure needs holistically and comprehensively. We need a plan that sees the linkages between all these systems, prioritizes needs, recognizes the cumulative impacts on rate and toll payers, and ensures that all monies are spent prudently, wisely and efficiently.
We are calling on State government and our toll road agencies to “fix-it-first” before tolls are raised again. A “fix-it-first” policy will consist of a comprehensive capital plan for the entire state, a prioritization of funding, ensure best practices are in place, and that our tax, rate, and toll monies are spent in the best interests of our citizens.
In conclusion, while we are supportive of a toll increase on both the New Jersey Turnpike and the Parkway to meet their critical infrastructure needs, we ask the State and the Authority to “fix-it-first” by creating a comprehensive infrastructure improvement and spending plan for the State that priorities needs, recognizes cumulative costs, and ensures that our citizens’ monies are spent appropriately. Above all, no hearings or decisions should be made related to these proposed toll hikes until such time as the coronavirus pandemic and the surrounding economic uncertainty has passed so that the public can fully participate in this process.