The South Jersey Transportation Authority went ahead with a public hearing on its biggest ever increase in Atlantic City Expressway tolls — even though Gov. Phil Murphy’s state lockdown prohibited the public from attending.

The hearing was streamed online, but much of the small amount of comment allowed was taken up by officials of unions that would benefit from the massive increase in SJTA spending.

The authority didn’t make available the usual details about the $500 million 10-year spending plan — not even to its own members.

SJTA Commissioner James “Sonny” McCullough said he was “very embarrassed” that the hearings went forward and “the whole process on toll increases … was not transparent.” The authority wouldn’t give him full details on its spending plans and rejected his request for another hearing with more information.

Expressway tolls would be increased an average of 36%, but much higher in some places. At the toll plaza outside Atlantic City, drivers would have to pay 66% more.

And like New Jersey’s gasoline tax that keeps rising, tolls on the expressway could increase every year indefinitely under the SJTA proposal — at a rate 50% higher than inflation the past decade.

Much of the extra money from drivers wouldn’t be spent on expressway improvements or maintenance, but on a new light rail line from Glassboro to Camden. The SJTA plan would spend $200 million on starting that project — 40% of the new revenue. Improvements to NJ Transit’s Atlantic City train line such as increased service or upgrades, meanwhile, get no dedicated funding under the plan.

The expressway toll hikes seem to be part of a statewide coordinated effort to ensure perpetual funding for projects without meaningful public oversight. Also during the pandemic this year, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority is proposing a 27% toll increase on the Garden State Parkway and a 36% increase on the N.J. Turnpike. Annual automatic increases forever would be approved for those tolls too.

Legislative leaders and Murphy should reject the toll hikes on all three highways and insist the increases and their planned spending be reevaluated in light of the record unemployment and severe damage to the New Jersey economy by the COVID-19 shutdown. Atlantic County representatives Sen. Chris Brown and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, who both tried in vain to get the hearings postponed, questioned whether such toll increases made sense going into what’s likely a severe recession.

Murphy already has stopped Homestead property tax relief payments in response to the economic damage. The toll hikes and projects should also be halted, even if it disappoints unions.

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