Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they are concerned over Gov. Phil Murphy’s approval of the toll hike plan. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
Drivers who celebrated when Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a plan to hike Turnpike and Parkway tolls last year have until March 1 to enjoy the lower tolls.
That’s when tolls on the two highways will increase 3% after the state Turnpike Authority unanimously approved a $2.6 billion budget for 2024 Tuesday that includes revenue from the increase. Murphy is expected to give the move his approval, an about-face from his rejection of the same budget in late October.
“By responsibly investing in the maintenance of our state’s highways and mass transit, we are continuing to prioritize the safety and mobility of all New Jersey residents and commuters,” said Murphy spokesman Bailey Lawrence.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they are concerned over Murphy’s approval of the spending plan, especially coming so soon after NJ Transit proposed a 15% fare increase starting in July.
The Turnpike Authority in 2020 approved a plan that would allow them to raise tolls 3% every year. Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) said he may reintroduce a bill that would stop the automatic increases for three years, a measure that died in the last legislative session without a hearing. Gopal was among the Democrats last fall who asked Murphy to halt the toll hikes.
“Tolls on New Jersey residents while they’re driving is a very regressive tax,” said Gopal. “This is absolutely going to have an effect on residents in New Jersey.”
When Murphy stopped the toll plan hike last year, the move came just before November’s legislative races, when all 120 seats in the Legislature were on the ballot. Republicans are now accusing Murphy of engaging in “political theater” by waiting until after the election to approve the same plan.
“It was a shameful political maneuver. Anyone suggesting that people in New Jersey believe it was legit is to suggest they’re flaming idiots — they’re not,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) in an interview.
Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) criticized Democratic lawmakers for tacking on $1.5 billion more in spending than Murphy had proposed for this year’s budget. That money could have gone to funding NJ Transit — which is facing a nearly $1 billion shortfall in 2026 — or giving drivers a break on their tolls, he said.
“You can’t say you’re going to make New Jersey more affordable, then increase fees and taxes, and expect people not to notice,” he said. “People are living paycheck to paycheck, and these types of increases, they break the camel’s back.”
When Murphy initially rejected the Turnpike’s budget in October, he said he needed more justification and “information on why the board is taking this step.” Lawrence did not respond when asked what information Murphy sought or what led him to change his mind.
The 2024 budget was approved unanimously Tuesday and without comment from the Turnpike’s board.
During Tuesday’s hour-long meeting, several people criticized the board’s decision to move forward with the budget, including the toll hikes and funding for the $10 billion Turnpike extension near the Holland Tunnel.
Jersey City man Jimmy Lee urged Turnpike commissioners to pause that project and direct that funding to NJ Transit, noting the transit agency’s looming budget shortfall.
“Transportation in New Jersey is in crisis. The role of the DOT and New Jersey Turnpike Authority is not only about collecting tolls and spending money, it’s also about NJ Transit and moving the people of New Jersey efficiently and at low cost,” he said.
Lawrence, Murphy’s spokesman, noted the 2020 toll indexing provides a dedicated revenue stream of nearly $500 million per year from the Turnpike Authority to the mass transit system.
Environmental advocacy groups also expressed opposition. John Reichman of Empower NJ said the $109 million expected to be spent on the Turnpike extension this year could cover the $106 million shortfall NJ Transit is projected to face in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
“The Legislature needs to step in to stop the fare increase, which it can do without costs to New Jersey taxpayers by simply halting work on the Turnpike expansion,” he said.
At least one person supports the toll increase: Barry Kushnir, president of Local 194 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents toll collectors and maintenance workers. He called it “critically important” to have reliable revenue to invest in transportation infrastructure.
Bucco, the Senate Republican leader, said Republicans want to find new ways to fund transportation while also making New Jersey more affordable for its residents. He noted that when the 2025 budget goes before the Turnpike Authority in the fall, it will include another 3% toll hike unless lawmakers intervene.
“It’s unfortunate,” Bucco said. “Republicans need a seat at the table to propose different changes and finally find solutions on how to address these issues.”
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