New Jersey officials are moving ahead with proposed toll hikes on the state's three tolled highways while Republican lawmakers are calling for legislative hearings on the issue.

Toll increases on the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, and the Atlantic City Expressway would help support debt service requirements, including boosting the New Jersey Turnpike Authority's debt-service ratio above its current coverage of 1.2 times, according to state Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri. Debt service coverage on NJTA debt must not fall below 1.2 times in accordance with the authority's bond agreements and its target is 1.4 times coverage.

The NJTA oversees the 146-mile Turnpike and the 173-mile Parkway while the South Jersey Transportation Authority manages the 44-mile Expressway.

Along with maintaining debt service coverage, the toll increases will help support road-widening and congestion projects, bridge repair, and New Jersey's $1.25 billion commitment towards the $7.6 billion Access to the Region's Core. The ARC is a new passenger rail-tunnel that will run from Newark to Manhattan's Pennsylvania Station, under the Hudson River.

The proposed increases do not require legislative approval, yet GOP lawmakers say legislative leaders should hold hearings on the toll hike proposals to shed more light on the issue and bring greater transparency.

While the NJTA and the SJTA will each hold three separate public hearings on toll increases before their boards vote on the boosts, Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, R-Essex, say those hearings are not enough.

"It's very important for the [NJTA] to meet its bond obligation, both legally and morally, but unfortunately the way [Gov. Jon Corzine is] proposing some of these plans is circumventing the will of the people," Kean said. "And the Republicans in the state Senate and the General Assembly just want to ask questions, and unfortunately the governor's waiting until the very last moment to do these policies."

Yet Senate President Richard Codey, D-Essex, and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, D-Camden and Gloucester, have yet to call lawmakers back into session for toll hearings. Roberts said the public-hearing process is a way for motorists to voice their concerns with the state's transportation authorities.

"I think the Legislature has an obligation, as does the governor, to keep a careful eye on the quality of the hearings to make sure that there's ample opportunity for the people of the state and the people who are going to pay the tolls to be heard," Roberts said in a prepared statement. "If we think that process is transparent and legitimate, I think we need to let it go forward."

Along with calling for legislative hearings, Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Warren and Hunterdon, yesterday raised the issue of whether officials can actually use NJTA toll revenues for non-highway projects, citing the authority's statute. That puts into question the use of toll revenues to help the state pay its $1.25 billion share towards the ARC tunnel, which will serve solely as a rail-passenger tunnel for New Jersey Transit Authority trains.

"There is this new wrinkle to it - the fact that, as I read the statute, tolls should be for highway projects exclusively and I don't think that the tunnel would qualify," Lance said.

A press release from Lance's office pointed to the section of the NJTA's statue that addresses the use of toll revenues.

"No toll revenue derived from the [Turnpike] or [Parkway] shall be used or available for any transportation project other than a highway project and all transportation projects other than highway projects shall be self-sustaining: provided, however, that such toll revenues may be used to finance or support the costs of non-highway transportation projects on an interim basis according to such terms, with or without interest, as the authority shall establish," according to the press release.

Yet Kolluri said that the authority's statute includes toll revenues for the funding of tunnels.

The NJTA's toll proposal includes increasing tolls on the Turnpike by 60 cents in 2009, 90 cents in 2012, and another 30 cents in 2023. The average cost for passenger cars on the Parkway would increase by 15 cents next year, 25 cents in 2012, and eight cents in 2023.

Those increases would raise the toll in 2009 for an average 23-mile trip on the Turnpike to $1.80 from $1.20 and bring the average passenger trip on the Parkway to 50 cents from 35 cents. The NJTA last increased tolls on the Turnpike and the Parkway in 2000 and 1998, respectively.

SJTA toll increases include a 15-cent hike on Expressway ramps, a 25-cent toll increase just west of Atlantic City, and a $1 increase just north of the city.

Kolluri said the authorities could implement the toll increases before the end of the year, if not sooner.

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