A bill sponsored by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Nicholas J. Sacco and Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney which would roll back toll increases intended to pay for the cancelled Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel project that Governor Chris Christie rejected late last year was approved by the Transportation Committee today by a vote of 3-2.

“To increase the tolls to pay for the ARC project, the Turnpike Authority had to have numerous public hearings in which they laid out a case for the toll increase,” said Senator Sacco. “Using the money intended for the ARC tunnel for other programs, absent a comprehensive public dialogue, undermines the public’s input and role and is disingenuous to the toll-payers who had an expectation of where their money was going. If the Turnpike Authority wants to use increased toll funding for other projects, then they should begin the hearing process anew to give the public a voice in transportation funding decisions.”

The bill, S-2636, would direct the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to adopt a resolution to scale back toll increases on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway that are no longer required for the financing or payment of the cancelled ARC mass transit tunnel between New York and New Jersey. In 2008, the Authority approved a two-phase toll increase on the Turnpike and Parkway, a portion of which was dedicated to raise $1.25 billion for the State’s contribution to the ARC Tunnel project. In October, Governor Christie announced his decision to terminate the ARC tunnel project, but recently identified increased toll revenues as a part of his plan to stabilize the State’s Transportation Trust Fund (TTF).

The phased in toll increases were estimated to have increased the cost of an average trip on the Turnpike by 50 cents in 2008, with an additional 90 cent increase to be triggered in 2012. The added cost on drivers who take the Turnpike every day for work averages out to $260 a year more in tolls under the 50- cent increase, and $468 a year in added tolls under the 90-cent increase. By reducing the tolls by the portion of toll increase dedicated to the ARC project, drivers would save ten cents on an average trip on the Garden State Parkway, and 34 cents on the average trip on the Turnpike beginning in 2012, or $52 a year for someone who drives the Parkway every day to get to and from work, and $176.80 a year for individuals who drive the Turnpike every day for work.

“Once we dedicate funds for a specific project, we ought to follow through with that project or return those funds to the toll-payers, through decreased tolls,” said Senator Sacco. “There’s obviously a need for a dedicated funding source for the TTF, but we need to engage the public in a dialogue regarding solutions, and follow the existing process for approving toll increases if that’s what the Governor wants to do. By shifting funds that were dedicated for the ARC tunnel to other programs, we’re opening up any future funding solutions to speculation about whether or not the money will go where it is intended.”

“The tax- and toll-payers of New Jersey deserve a candid accounting of what we need for the TTF, and what it’s going to cost the average New Jersey family,” said Senate President Sweeney. “However, rather than a discussion about the merits and pitfalls of a toll increase on our State’s roads, the Governor instead opted for a bait-and-switch plan that spares him a small measure of political inconvenience. If Governor Christie wants to raise tolls to pay for the state’s transportation needs, he should ensure it is narrowly constructed while not allowing for future bait-and-switch without the driving public’s input.”

The bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee before going to the full Senate for consideration.