Corzine to seek 50 percent toll hike every 4 years

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(01/08/08) TRENTON (AP) - New Jersey's highway tolls would increase at least 50 percent every four years starting in 2010 under a plan to be unveiled Tuesday by Gov. Jon S. Corzine to raise money to cut state debt and pay for transportation projects, four Statehouse officials told The Associated Press on Monday. Tolls would increase 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022 under Corzine's proposal that will be unveiled Tuesday during the governor's State of the State address to the Legislature. But the increases would also include adjustments to reflect inflation in the years tolls weren't hiked, said the officials who requested anonymity in order not to upstage the governor's Tuesday speech. Tolls would increase on the Atlantic City Expressway, Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike. The average cash-paying automobile driver currently pays $1.92 per turnpike trip. Under Corzine's plan, that trip would cost $9.86 by 2022, according to a Statehouse official. Corzine's plan is meant to combat mounting debt he said threatens the state's future. Corzine was unavailable for comment on Monday, but when recently talking generally of his plan said, "I don't take this step lightly. I do so because it is the only way, in my judgment, to dramatically change the state's financial position." Corzine wants to pay at least half of $32 billion in state debt, a total that's doubled since 2000 and makes the state the nation's fourth-most indebted state. The debt consumes about 10 percent of the state budget - a figure Corzine said will rise in coming years, preventing the state from investing in vital key needs unless something is done. State bridges also need $13.6 billion in repairs and the state's transportation fund is set to run out of money in 2011. Corzine has acknowledged his plan may be tough to sell to lawmakers and citizens, but insists he has little choice. "The real risk to our collective future comes from the status quo, not from change," he said. "Make no mistake - I am willing to lose my job if that's necessary to set our fiscal house in order and get New Jersey out from the debt burden constraining our future." Corzine wants to create a nonprofit agency that would issue bonds to bring the state a quick, large cash infusion. The bonds would be paid back by increased tolls. He's also looking at other revenue sources, including possibly selling naming rights to state properties, development rights at train stations and properties along toll roads, leasing state-owned fiber optic networks and increasing fees for vendors at toll road rest stops. Sen. Raymond Lesniak said the state could also earn money by installing windmills along toll roads. "It's not going to be easy because change is always difficult," Lesniak said of whether the public would accept Corzine's plan. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released Monday found 50 percent of voters oppose increasing tolls, with 39 percent supporting the idea. "The governor knows he has a sales job ahead of him," said Peter Woolley, a political scientist and the poll director. The Garden State Parkway has had one toll increase and the New Jersey Turnpike four in the last 50 years. In 1989, parkway tolls increased to 35 cents per toll booth. The last turnpike toll increase was in 2003, a 17 percent hike. Republicans remain skeptical. "We're going to dramatically raise tolls, which is really just a tax increase, to keep feeding the monster of state spending," said Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth. "People are leaving the state in droves because they can't afford to live here and we're going to make it worse."


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