When explaining their reasons for proposing a 37% toll increase on the Atlantic City Expressway, officials have stressed the need for nearly $500 million in construction spending to widen and repave the highway and improve its connection to Atlantic City International Airport.

But after repeated questioning from members of the public and legislators such as state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, and U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, South Jersey Transportation Authority leaders finally put a figure on how much of the toll increase it planned to spend on a light rail line from Glassboro to Camden. It turned out that project would get up to $200 million — or about 40% of the additional toll funds.

Failing to dedicate significant funding to the Atlantic City Rail Line, which desperately needs more service and better infrastructure, ignores the very reason for the expressway’s existence, Van Drew said Friday.

“The whole reason there is an A.C. Expressway is because there is an Atlantic City and an Atlantic County,” Van Drew said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t help or do other projects (outside the county) as well, but the central project should be that (Atlantic City Rail) line.”

Expressway tolls, which raised more than $80 million a year in recent years, have not increased since 2008. Under the SJTA plan, the Egg Harbor plaza toll would increase from $3 to $4.25 each way, and 75-cent tolls at Pleasantville and elsewhere would increase to $1.25.

SJTA spokesman Mark Amorosi has said the agency expects to raise $26 million a year from the toll increase.

Written materials provided to the public listed the Glassboro light rail project as part of the 10-year plan but gave no dollar amount for it. The materials also included unspecified improvements to the Atlantic City Rail Line, but officials have refused to put a dollar figure on how much would be spent on that.

The paucity of information, lack of commitment to the A.C. Rail Line and the timing of the toll hikes as the coronavirus health crisis has thrown hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans out of work have angered many.

“I’m outraged you are trying to rush through this massive toll increase when people all over the world are sick, scared and dying. It is insensitive, so uncaring and I’m really suspicious of the timing on this,” said Carolyn Rhodes, of Mantua, Gloucester County.

She called the operations of the Delaware River Port Authority, with which the SJTA would partner on the project, “shrouded in mystery and obscured from public scrutiny, sort of what you are doing now.”

Brown suggested the plan was developed before anyone had heard of COVID-19 in an April 10 letter to Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, chairwoman of the SJTA board and New Jersey’s transportation commissioner. Brown wants the SJTA to reevaluate its plans in light of the financial crisis caused by the virus.

“It seems any proposed public works projects from a public entity have to be evaluated within our overall post-pandemic priorities and if ... (we) can afford those projects,” Brown said.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti has maintained the spending plan will present “an immediate economic stimulus.”

“It will allow South Jersey to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic in the short term and sustain economic development into the future,” she said at the third of three online public hearings on the project, held over the objections of many.

She said the expressway has a vital role in two economic engines — connecting Philadelphia and Camden to shore destinations in the east, “including via a Glassboro-Camden light rail and Atlantic City Rail Line.”

Van Drew also sent Gutierrez-Scaccetti a letter about the same time, asking for specifics on how much money will be spent on the A.C. Rail Line.

“I have gotten no response yet,” Van Drew said Friday. “It’s not, in my mind, how you run a transportation and infrastructure plan.”

Van Drew said he has in the past thought highly of the work of SJTA Executive Director Stephen Dougherty, but this time, “I don’t understand what the real situation is here.”

“Before you impose onerous high tolls on people at the worst financial time in living history, you must have a really good reason, and a really good plan,” Van Drew said.

Gov. Phil Murphy, however, seems to support the SJTA plans and those of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to also raise tolls on the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike.

“I feel strongly transportation-related money needs to be the direct source wherever possible for transportation projects,” Murphy said Thursday in response to a reporter’s question about the toll hikes at his daily COVID-19 briefing. “We are going to wake up from this at some point. … We have a state we have got to make sure is standing and there for us in a year, three years, five, 10 or 20 years.”

Murphy said construction projects will be key in moving the state forward.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti said similar things at the online public hearings the SJTA held, even saying the SJTA projects would help pull South Jersey out of the economic doldrums of the COVID-19 crisis.

“He’s never been a worrier about tolls or taxes,” Van Drew said of Murphy.

Contact: 609-272-7219

mpost@pressofac.com

Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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