Corzine: Toll-hike breaks are likely He wants to ease the pain for commuters on N.J. toll roads.

Posted: January 11, 2008

Gov. Corzine said yesterday that commuters on New Jersey toll roads are likely to get a break from the steep toll increases he proposes to put in place by 2010.

Along with travelers and truck drivers, workaday drivers are the big losers in Corzine's plan to save the state treasury by raising tolls on New Jersey roads. To help win over lawmakers and the public, Corzine needs to find a way to ease commuters' pain.

"We want to build in some support" for commuters and frequent users of the toll roads, Corzine said in a meeting with Inquirer editors and reporters. He also suggested discounts could be provided to carpoolers and drivers of hybrid vehicles.

He did not specify how discounts would be structured or how large they might be.

The governor said it would be easier to provide such breaks if his financial restructuring plan raised $38 billion to $40 billion, at the high range of the administration's current projections.

Corzine wants to create a nonprofit agency that would manage the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway and the Atlantic City Expressway and issue bonds to bring the state a large cash infusion to pay debt and to fund transportation. The bonds would be paid back by increased tolls.

Corzine wants to use at least $16 billion to reduce state debt, which is now at $32 billion.

"If we can raise more money, we'll take that windfall and use that in those kinds of ways," he said of commuter discounts.

Legislative leaders are also talking about giving commuters a break from toll hikes proposed to be more than 50 percent every four years from 2010 to 2022, with inflation-matching increases thereafter.

"There's no doubt there will be changes" to Corzine's proposal, said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), a powerful Corzine ally in the Legislature. "We will certainly ease the toll increase and lessen the burden on commuters."

The administration won't have to look far for ideas: Many other states have created deep discounts for commuters on their toll roads and bridges. The universal goal is to limit the cost to in-state users and shift as much of the burden as possible to out-of-state drivers and commercial traffic.

Delaware, for example, offers a "frequent traveler" discount of 50 percent for drivers who make 30 trips in 30 days on State Route 1. The New York Thruway has commuter discounts of 50 percent or more on portions of its system, typically for drivers who make at least 20 trips a month. Maine has a system of quarterly discounts for drivers who frequently travel between two specified exits on the Maine Turnpike.

And, in the Philadelphia region, users of the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry bridges between Philadelphia and South Jersey get an $18 discount for each month in which they make 18 crossings.

In most cases, the discounts require drivers to use an electronic transponder, such as E-ZPass.

Corzine acknowledged yesterday the opposition to saving the state's finances by increasing tolls on the users of three highways. Motorists' organizations, trucking groups and some transportation experts have argued it is unfair to put the burden on those drivers, rather than spreading the cost over the broader statewide population.

"I will not deny there will be some inequities," Corzine said yesterday, but he said toll hikes would be less onerous than big increases in gas taxes, sales taxes or income taxes.

"I'm not enthusiastic about toll hikes," Corzine said. "But this is about picking a medicine when you're in crisis."

Robert Poole, a transportation expert and toll-road advocate with the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank, said "the state, overall, is in financial trouble, and the state as a whole should be on the hook, not just a select group."

"Whatever finances are going for non-transportation purposes are just a tax," Poole said. "You can call it a toll, but it's just a tax."

David Weinstein, spokesman for the AAA Clubs of New Jersey, which represent one-third of the state's six million drivers, said Corzine's proposal "clearly raises some serious concerns."

"A huge amount of the money would be for non-transportation projects, and that is a serious concern," Weinstein said. "Whether that's fair for motorists is one of our main concerns."

Corzine introduced his financial-restructuring plan in his State of the State address Tuesday. He called for the increased revenue to be used only for paying down debt and for transportation projects. And he asked for a constitutional amendment to require voter approval for future borrowing that's not slated to be paid for by dedicated revenues.

The governor is taking his plan on the road to all 21 counties in a series of "town hall meetings," starting tomorrow in Livingston, in Essex County.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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