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State letting lockdown diminish public oversight of big toll hikes

State letting lockdown diminish public oversight of big toll hikes

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A 2018 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts warned motorists that states were turning to toll roads “to fill treasuries and manage traffic.” It said the large toll increases were driven by stagnant revenue from gasoline taxes.

But although New Jersey increased its gas tax substantially in 2016 and set it to increase automatically from then on, the state is jacking up tolls on its major highways anyway.

While Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature could reduce, postpone or reject the increases, quasi-independent state authorities have done the dirty work of setting their size and proposing them — without sufficient independent outside auditing to inspire confidence that the public isn’t badly overpaying for highway improvements and maintenance.

And now, thanks to Murphy’s COVID-19 lockdown of the state to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the public will have even less input on the biggest toll hikes ever.

Even though state residents have been ordered to remain at home and avoid unnecessary travel and contact, the South Jersey Transportation Authority is proceeding with public hearings Wednesday and Thursday, April 1 and 2, on its proposal to increase Atlantic City Expressway tolls by nearly 40%.

Credit state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, for calling them out on this blatant disregard of the public’s role and interests. He said it was “unfair and unreasonable to expect the public to fully evaluate SJTA’s plan and offer substantive comment” during the pandemic emergency.

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said the public hearings should be postponed and like Brown questioned whether a toll increase of such size made sense during this period of massive layoffs and looming recession.

The SJTA seems to be following the playbook of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. While the public was consumed with the spread of disease in the state and nation and the steps taken to combat it, the NJTA proposed a 27% toll increase on the Garden State Parkway and at 36% increase on the N.J. Turnpike. It canceled one public hearing and proceeded with two others (Camden being the nearest), streaming them online.

What’s worse, both authorities proposed automatic toll increases forever — 3% every year. That’s more than 50% higher than the inflation rate the past decade, which is supposed to reflect the typical increase in the cost of goods and services. That sounds like a plan to create a increasing pile of money to be divided up by bureaucrats and the construction industry.

The projects to be funded by the toll hikes, mostly road widening and electronic tolling upgrades, may be needed and worthwhile. The SJTA plans to finally connect the expressway to Atlantic City International Airport, a long-sought improvement.

But the public hearings and toll proposals should be postponed. State officials can’t let the pandemic reduce the insufficient scrutiny of them even further.

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