In spite of prohibitions against groups of people gathering, the South Jersey Transportation Authority has not postponed public hearings set for next week on proposed toll increases of almost 40% for the Atlantic City Expressway.
And that has upset state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, who sent a letter Friday to SJTA Chairwoman Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, asking her to cancel the April 1 and 2 public hearings.
“At a time when the immediate focus of government’s energies are directed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, it makes no sense to hold any public hearings,” Brown wrote.
“With families losing their jobs and businesses closing their doors, it is unfair and unreasonable to expect the public to fully evaluate SJTA’s plan and offer substantive comment on your toll hike,” Brown said. “Essentially SJTA is slipping in a toll hike under the cover of a crisis.”
A spokesman for the SJTA was unable to provide a comment Friday, and the public hearings were still being advertised on the SJTA’s website.
SJTA board member James “Sonny” McCullough said Friday he could not comment because he has been told by the SJTA that the Governor’s Office and SJTA leadership do not want board members quoted in the press about the hearings.
The governor could not immediately be reached for comment.
The increases would fund a proposed $497.4 million capital plan for improvements on the expressway and at Atlantic City International Airport. Among other things, it includes resurfacing and widening projects, lighting projects and $60 million for a direct connection from the expressway to the airport.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority angered many people earlier this month when it went ahead with public hearings on toll hikes for the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike.
“Gov. Murphy has ordered all residents to stay at home, and yet this is the second transportation agency to hold public hearings during this public health crisis,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
He called the SJTA hearings undemocratic.
“It isn’t fair to schedule these hearings when people can’t leave their homes during the coronavirus outbreak,” Tittel said.
The proposal would increase tolls by an average of 57 cents for passenger vehicles, but higher-cost tolls would increase more. The authority also wants automatic annual increases of 3%.
The concerns are coming from both sides of the aisle.
When contacted Friday, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said he thought the public hearings should be postponed.
“We should be in freeze mode right now,” Mazzeo said. And he questioned the idea of toll increases in a time of mass layoffs. The state reported 155,000 people applied for unemployment benefits last week, with Atlantic County hit particularly hard, even before mass casino layoffs this week.
Brown also suggested the SJTA reconsider its proposed toll increases in general.
“Perhaps SJTA’s plan merited public consideration when it was conceived prior to the state of emergency,” Brown wrote. “However, circumstances have changed dramatically, and I respectfully ask SJTA ... to cancel the public hearings and reconsider your plan to raise tolls.”