In the first of three electronic public hearings on toll increases for the Atlantic City Expressway on Wednesday, union officials expressed support for the increases, while road users opposed both the toll increases and holding the hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The increases would be the first for the highway since 2008 and would pay for an almost $500 million capital improvement plan that would help the region recover from the economic damage of the health crisis, South Jersey Transportation Authority officials said at the start of the hearing.
SJTA Chief Engineer Stephen M. Mazur said the plan includes $27.4 million in work to be completed in 2021, including resurfacing of 63 miles of road and ramp, lighting improvements, a new maintenance garage in Pleasantville, replacement of fleet trucks and planning for a $40 million all-electronic toll system.
Longer-term projects include $150 million in road widening from milepost 31.6 to 44, $20 million for improvements at Interchange 7 where the expressway meets the Garden State Parkway, and $60 million for a direct connection project between Exit 9 on the expressway and Atlantic City International Airport.
It also includes about $200 million to develop a light rail project from Glassboro to Camden and for upgrades to the Atlantic City Rail Line, but they are not described in any detail in the SJTA materials online.
The proposal would raise the car toll at the expressway’s Pleasantville toll plaza from $0.75 to $1.25 each way, and at the Egg Harbor City toll plaza from $3 to $4.20 each way.
“The road to our recovery begins with infrastructure,” said Michael Makarski, of Bridgewater in Somerset County, who said he represented a union representing 7,200 operating engineers. “That’s why we’re supporting the toll adjustment proposal.”
Other union or industry representatives calling in to support the proposal were Kevin Monaco, executive director of the New Jersey Asphalt Paving Association, based in Hamilton Township, Mercer County, and Andrew Bulakowski, of Cape May Beach, from the Eastern Atlantic State Regional Council of Carpenters.
“I can’t help but notice the pro comments are from members of industries that would directly benefit from the toll hike,” said Alan Maddox, of Pleasantville, who said he is a senior citizen and E-ZPass holder. “I’m sure I represent members of the public. … This increase would have a direct impact on my budget.”
He also said the SJTA was holding the hearing at a “terrible time,” as the novel coronavirus was upending everyone’s lives.
“A 40% hike is not modest — it’s quite a jump,” Maddox said. “I can’t see taking a 40% hike on anything in my life right now.”
Union members and SJTA officials said the toll increases and capital improvement plan would provide a way to recover economically once the COVID-19 crisis is over.
SJTA Board Chairwoman Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said she understood people want to know why the agency is moving ahead with public hearings and possible toll increases in the midst of a pandemic.
“This process began long before COVID-19. It began many years ago, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “The need will only increase in years to come. … It is now a key component to how this region will recover from effects of COVID-19.”
But some taxpayers said the agency should wait and see if federal funds will become available to cover some of the capital plan.
“Within the last hour, the president of the United States announced he would like to do $2 trillion in infrastructure improvement,” said Frank Finnerty, of Egg Harbor Township. “I would wonder why the taxpayer and user of the expressway … would have to be paying a large increase when this project probably could qualify under President Trump’s plan?
Some callers objected to the need for both the widening and airport connector projects.
“The airport (is) not too far from where the expressway comes in (at Exit 9),” said Marla Rovins, of Northfield. “If you live here, you understand the proximity.”
She said she doesn’t think there is a need to spend $60 million building bridges to make for a more direct link.
Tim Sevener, of Mount Tabor in Morris County, said he represented the New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers.
“We support LED lighting … and the $200 million Glassboro light rail is a good thing. Maintaining roads is a good thing. But there is no reason for road widening,” Sevener said. “There is an Atlantic City Rail Line that already parallels the expressway. ... that needs to be improved and service improved.”
Sevener and others argued that widening roads does not reduce congestion, but simply encourages more vehicles to use the roads.
Repair and maintenance projects like fleet replacement and resurfacing should be paid for by regular funding from existing tolls, said Bob Dailyda, of Egg Harbor Township.
“Last year (SJTA) took in $80 million in toll revenue,” Dailyda said. “I don’t think you should raise tolls for that kind of thing.”