Increasing Number of States Considering Tolls on Freeways

Fri May 23, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Tom Hester Jr.




TRENTON, N.J. (AP) It’s not a popular idea, but cash-strapped states like New Jersey are increasingly looking at putting tolls on free interstates.

New Jersey lawmakers are weighing the idea of placing tolls on Interstates 78 and 80, two busy highways that slice across the state from Pennsylvania to New York City. The idea was raised as an alternative to Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s widely panned proposal to increase tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway.

“It’s not the silver bullet that solves all our problems, but it’s one way to bring some money into a system that needs it,’’ said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, who chairs New Jersey’s Assembly transportation committee.

New Jersey’s not alone. A growing number of states are looking at free interstates as potential revenue sources, to help offset budget deficits and pay for highway repair and maintenance.

Pennsylvania is weighing putting tolls on I-80. Virginia is considering putting them on Interstate 81. Missouri is weighing tolled trucks lanes on Interstate 70.

“The interest is growing and growing considerably,’’ said James Ray, the Federal Highway Administration’s acting administrator.

While no formal plan has been introduced in New Jersey, some legislators are pushing the idea and Corzine deemed the concept a “legitimate alternative that needs to be studied.’’

Ray acknowledged the debate about charging to drive on free highways can be difficult. Some citizens are already telling Corzine they don’t like the idea.

“How many millions of dollars will it cost and how long will it take to build toll booths?’’ asked Gene Szura in an e-mail to the governor.

Steve Shriver told Corzine he wouldn’t mind if the tolls booths are placed in such a way as to target out-of-state drivers entering New Jersey.

“I don’t mind Pennsylvania residents that work in New York paying extra,’’ he said in an e-mail.

Ray questioned whether the nation could continue relying on gasoline and other taxes to finance transportation improvements, as do most states and the federal government.

“The financing system has delivered a tremendous good to us and it still serves us well in many respects, but I think the threshold of change is upon us,’’ he said. “It is time now to have a dialogue about how we’re going to finance our roads and infrastructure needs in the future.’’

He said continued reliance on gasoline taxes conflict with efforts toward energy independence and fuel-efficient cars.

“Ultimately, we will shift to an alternative financing mechanism, and I think we will do that sooner than a lot of people think,’’ he said. “And, certainly, tolls is one of the ways that that can manifest itself, so we are supportive of direct-user pricing as long as it’s done in a responsible way and we are encouraged in the debate that’s going on.’’

In New Jersey, the idea of tolling the interstates was first proposed by the state’s National Association of Industrial and Office Properties.

The 550-member group represents industrial, warehouse and distribution centers along the bustling New Jersey Turnpike, and it worries the hefty toll increases proposed by Corzine would devastate New Jersey businesses facing competition from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

Alex Klatskin of Forsgate Industrial Partners, which has 10 million sq. ft. of industrial space off the turnpike in central New Jersey, said talk of turnpike toll increases has raised worry.

“The buzz of the toll hikes has made it into the marketplace already,’’ he said.

But the idea of putting tolls on free highways has already provoked opposition.

U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett, whose district is crossed by both freeways, has vowed to fight the idea.

“The talk of putting tolls on I-78 and I-80 is absurd and if the idea progresses, you can rest assured that Congressman Garrett will also strongly fight to oppose it,’’ said spokeswoman Mary Vought.

In Pennsylvania, the prospect of new tolls has generated significant political opposition, particularly among people and businesses along the interstate corridor.

“We realize Pennsylvania needs more money to maintain and protect its transportation infrastructure, but tolling Interstate 80 is not the right solution,’’ said Maria Culp, the Central Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce president.