A prominent New Jersey lawmaker yesterday said the state would need to increase tolls by 50% this year and again five years from now to help raise revenue to meet transportation infrastructure needs.

The issue of financing roads, bridges, and tunnels throughout the Garden State has taken a backseat while lawmakers work on the state's $33 billion budget for fiscal 2009, which begins July 1. Yet Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, said the state will need to spend money on transportation capital projects in an effort to boost New Jersey's economy, despite lawmakers not acting on Gov. Jon Corzine's debt restructuring transportation proposal.

"Not only are repairs and improvements absolutely necessary to get started, it also will be a job stimulator when we're in the middle of a, quite frankly, a national economic downturn," Lesniak said in an interview yesterday. "So, it will put people to work and help revitalize the economy."

Corzine's initial debt restructuring proposal has not gained support in the Legislature. Lesniak told the Star-Ledger in a story yesterday that any new plan the governor's administration crafts will include fewer toll hikes than the four 50% increases over eight years beginning in 2010 that his debt restructuring plan included. Instead, officials are considering toll hikes that are "extremely more modest," Lesniak said.

"We're really talking about a 50% toll increase now, which would have been necessary if the governor didn't come up with any plan. That's absolutely necessary for the [New Jersey Turnpike Authority] to finance any plans that are already approved for widening roadways, [alleviating] congestion, and also for the bridge repair, that's necessary."

Lesniak also mentioned future toll increases on New Jersey's roadways and implementing tolls at the Pennsylvania border on Route 78 and Route 80. Those roadways run east-west through the state's northern counties. By raising tolls, the state will have additional revenue to help finance a new $7.5 billion passenger-rail tunnel to connect Newark and Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan via the Hudson River, among other high-priority transportation developments.

"There would be an additional 50% toll increase five years down the road that would, along with the tolls at the border of [interstates] 80 and 78, provide billions of dollars of additional financing for needed transportation projects like the new rail tunnel into New York and bridge repair work throughout the state of New Jersey, and other roadway improvements," Lesniak said.

In January, Corzine proposed increasing tolls on the Turnpike, the Atlantic City Expressway, and the Garden State Parkway with those additional revenues backing up to $38 billion of debt that would pay down state-backed debt and toll road debt and providing revenues to the state's Transportation Trust Fund Authority for 75 years.

As the TTFA will run out of funding after fiscal 2011 and officials do not favor the option of entering into a long-term lease agreement with a private management company for the road, lawmakers will be forced to look at toll increases.

"These are improvements that we have to do. Nobody's going to like it, but we're not doing our jobs as Legislators if we turn our backs on the need," Lesniak said. "And there's no other way other than increasing the gas tax, which that doesn't seem to be a particularly good way to do it right now."


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