N.J., Pa. tap toll-road funds for general road projects

Motorists emerging from the Downingtown toll plaza in 2004. Pennsylvania Turnpike cash tolls will rise 10 percent on Jan 1.
Motorists emerging from the Downingtown toll plaza in 2004. Pennsylvania Turnpike cash tolls will rise 10 percent on Jan 1. (BARBARA L. JOHNSTON / File Photograph)
Posted: September 18, 2011

Struggling to pay for roads, bridges, and transit, Pennsylvania and New Jersey increasingly are tapping their turnpike drivers.

Rather than rely on traditional sources such as higher gas taxes or motor-vehicle fees, both states are raising tolls to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to non-toll-road projects.

Some transportation and environmental organizations have cried foul, arguing that the burden for statewide transportation costs should not rest so heavily on the users of just one or two arteries.

And toll-road operators say the diversion of revenue will mean less money to repair and expand their roads.

"The only fair and responsible use for a toll is to use it for the purpose it was collected," said Jim Lardear, spokesman for the AAA MidAtlantic auto club.

"Turnpike toll revenues, for example, should only be used for their intended purpose, which is providing a well-maintained turnpike for its travelers," he said.

Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which advocates for more transit funding in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, said it was reasonable to ask toll roads to share the wealth.

"Our transportation network is interconnected, so it makes sense to use toll revenue on projects that reduce traffic congestion on the turnpike and parkway," she said.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority last week agreed to contribute an additional $324 million a year to the state. Since 2007, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has sent $3.1 billion - more than it collected in tolls - to Harrisburg for statewide use.

Tolls will go up again Jan. 1 on the New Jersey Turnpike (53 percent), Garden State Parkway (50 percent), and Pennsylvania Turnpike (10 percent for cash customers; none for E-ZPass users).

"There is so little appetite to find new revenue that toll roads become an easy target, because they generate their own money," said Craig Shuey, the chief operating officer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

The American Trucking Associations is "very much opposed to those sorts of toll increases," said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the group.

"We prefer that the funds stay with the toll facility . . . [for] the benefit of the users of the facility," he said.

The association has urged, instead, a 15-cent increase in the current 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax to finance transportation projects.

Faced with crumbling roads and bridges and financially strapped transit systems, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and other states have turned to their toll roads because that is often easier than winning legislative approval for gas-tax or motor-vehicle fee increases or federal approval for tolls on what are now free interstates.

Rail tunnel

The boards that manage toll roads typically are appointed by a governor and can raise tolls without legislative approval.

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority approved a plan by Gov. Christie to increase its annual contribution of toll money by $324 million for state transportation costs.

That includes $195 million a year that had been designated for a new commuter-rail tunnel linking New Jersey to New York City. Christie canceled the ARC tunnel project last year, citing concerns about possible cost overruns.

Including other payments, the contribution from the toll roads will be $359 million in the fiscal year starting July 1.

The New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway will collect about $1 billion in tolls this year, and about $1.5 billion next year. The cost to operate them is about $475 million a year; debt service will cost about $418 million this year and $680 million next year, leaving a surplus to send to the state.

'Relief'

Those who drive toll roads benefit from spending on mass transit and on other highways, said James Simpson, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation and chairman of the Turnpike Authority.

"We like to look at things as a transportation network. It's really a cross-subsidy," Simpson said.

"People on the highway get relief from people using transit. If everybody took their car, it would be complete gridlock out there," he said.

There are also environmental benefits to spending on transit, said Simpson, a former chief of the Federal Transit Administration.

"There are less cars, less emissions. The car is now paying more of its share."

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the impending toll hike and transfer of funds "just a hidden tax on commuters that the governor has placed on us instead of coming up with a long-term solution for New Jersey's transportation needs."

In Pennsylvania, the turnpike has been a cash cow for statewide projects since 2007, when the legislature approved a plan to make I-80 a toll road. In anticipation of I-80 tolls, the turnpike commission was ordered to borrow billions and start paying $900 million a year for highway and transit projects.

The U.S. Department of Transportation rejected the I-80 plan, but the turnpike still must fund statewide projects - at a rate of $450 million annually for 47 years.

So, after just five toll increases in 68 years, the Pennsylvania Turnpike now is raising tolls every year.

They went up 25 percent in 2009; 3 percent in 2010; 10 percent for cash customers (3 percent for E-ZPass users) in 2011, and will go up 10 percent for cash customers on Jan. 1 (no hike for E-ZPass customers).

Requiring turnpike users to underwrite statewide highway and transit projects irks many tollpayers, turnpike executive Shuey acknowledged.

"There is some reason to question how equitable it is for turnpike users to keep paying to finance the rest of the state," said Shuey, who was a top Republican state Senate aide during the creation of Act 44, the law that established the funding arrangement.

The turnpike commission acknowledges it likely "will have to cut spending on its own long-term projects and capital expenses, to maintain the mandated level of funding to PennDot."

It spends nearly as much for statewide projects ($450 million) as for turnpike projects ($470 million).

Other agencies have received similar complaints from tollpayers over unrelated spending.

The Delaware River Port Authority, which operates four bridges between South Jersey and Philadelphia, was widely criticized for spending about $500 million in toll money on "economic development" projects around the Philadelphia region, such as sports stadiums, museums, and a symphony hall.

And last month, an outcry from tollpayers - and the two states' governors - prompted the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to reduce a planned toll hike for its bridges and tunnels. Much of that money will go toward rebuilding the World Trade Center.


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

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