As Jersey Shore residents began their COVID-challenged Memorial Day weekend, the state commissioner of transportation called a quick, surprise South Jersey Transportation Authority meeting to vote on big toll hikes for Atlantic City Expressway drivers.
Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who also chairs the authority’s board, on Friday quietly told SJTA members they would hold a special phone meeting at 1:30 p.m. today, Wednesday, to vote on the 37% immediate increase in tolls. The proposal would also authorize automatic annual toll hikes forever — up to 50% higher than the inflation rate the past decade.
The SJTA board of commissioners just had their regular meeting on Tuesday last week and could have announced the vote on the toll hike then, but Gutierrez-Scaccetti kept the public in the dark. That’s been the pattern throughout the state’s push during the COVID-19 lockdown to take another $26 million a year from expressway drivers for projects and maintenance.
The failure to make the case for the toll hikes is wrong and also unfortunate, since the decade-long $500 million capital spending they allow includes some appealing projects such as better connecting the expressway to Atlantic City International Airport.
Without such arguments, the $200 million to start work on a trolley-train line between Glassboro and Camden looks simply unfair to drivers of the unrelated expressway. And Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the Murphy administration and the SJTA have remained silent on how much of the $2 billion-plus project cost those drivers will ultimately bear. But having drivers, many from out of state heading to casinos, pay for a regional transit upgrade would spare New Jersey residents much of the cost.
The state push has even involved sidelining some of the SJTA’s own commissioners. Commissioner James “Sonny” McCullough, former longtime mayor of Egg Harbor Township, said “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.
Rep. Jeff Van Drew, state Sen. Chris Brown, and Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato have all said the vote should not take place during Gov. Phil Murphy’s emergency closure of the state and have called for more information on the spending plan.
The expressway toll increase is part of an effort to jack up tolls on all three major N.J. toll roads. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, whose board Gutierrez-Scaccetti also chairs, is pursuing a 27% toll increase on the Garden State Parkway and a 36% increase on the N.J. Turnpike.
Annual automatic increases forever would be authorized for those tolls too. That’s an egregious abuse of public policy that would relieve free-spending state officials from having to justify burdening the state’s less affluent residents even more.
Now that the state is starting to open up, the SJTA board should put off approving the plan, schedule regular public hearings that follow social distancing rules and make its case for the work and toll increases.
People can try to take part in today’s special toll hike meeting by calling 800-346-7359 and entering access code 492851.
But don’t be surprised, given the shabby treatment of the public so far, if meaningful opposition is ignored and the toll-and-spend plan is rammed through.