Democrats aim to scale back scheduled toll increases on the New Jersey Turnpike after Gov. Chris Christie terminated a Hudson River commuter-rail tunnel they were meant to help finance.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, chairman of the Transportation Committee, filed legislation Tuesday to reduce toll hikes that would have supported the cancelled mass-transit project known as Access to the Region’s Core, or the ARC tunnel.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority approved 40% and 43% toll increases for the Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, respectively, in October 2008. The toll hikes kicked in on Dec. 1, 2008.
Tolls are set to go up again on Jan. 1, 2012, by 53% and 50% on the Turnpike and the Parkway. The increases were intended to generate $1.25 billion for the ARC tunnel, which would have doubled commuter-rail capacity between New Jersey and Manhattan.
Supporters of what had been the nation’s largest mass-transit project said the increased commuter rail capacity it would have generated between New York and New Jersey would have eased traffic congestion on the Turnpike and the Parkway.
Last week, Christie, a Republican, acknowledged that his five-year, $8 billion plan to replenish the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund includes the use of toll revenue originally pegged for the ARC tunnel.
It is not clear how much toll revenue would support his transportation funding plan. His financing proposal calls for $4.4 billion of new-money debt.
Democrats object to Turnpike and Parkway users paying additional tolls when the tunnel project is now defunct.
“It’s disingenuous for the governor to, on one hand, cancel the ARC tunnel project, and on the other, continue the funding source for the ARC tunnel into perpetuity to pay for his own transportation projects,” Sacco said in a statement. “When tolls were increased along the Turnpike and Parkway in 2008, it was done so with the understanding that the funds would go to pay for the ARC tunnel.”
The authority increased tolls in 2008 to help boost its debt-service coverage levels and finance a 10-year, $7 billion capital plan that includes a $2.5 billion road-widening project.
The agency has already sold $4 billion of bonds secured by the anticipated toll revenue, according to Turnpike spokesman Tom Feeney. It last sold $1.85 billion of Series 2010A taxable Build America Bonds on Dec. 7.
The 2008 and 2012 toll hikes “are anticipated to provide the authority with sufficient net revenues to satisfy all of the requirements of the resolution relating to the issuance of all bonds expected to be hereafter issued by the authority to fund the cost of construction of the various projects comprising the capital improvement program,” according to the official statement of the Series 2010A bonds.
The resolution to increase tolls stipulates that if the authority is no longer required to fund the $1.25 billion for the ARC tunnel, its executive director may use those excess revenues for non-turnpike system projects in the capital plan, according to board meeting minutes from Oct. 10, 2008.