Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Politicians may love to sell roads, but the public isn't buying."

We're on the road to nowhere

December 24, 2006

Paul Mulshine
The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)
Copyright 2006

Though he has not yet been in office for a year, Jon Corzine already holds the record for the leakiest trial balloon in New Jersey political history.

That would be his proposal to put tolls on the state's freeways. That idea went nowhere fast, but the guv still needs money to maintain the spending spree that the state has been on for this entire century. If you can't make new toll roads, how about selling the old ones?

I suspect the plan to sell the New Jersey Turnpike may run out of air almost as quickly as the prior effort. New Jersey selling the Turnpike? That would be like Texas selling the Alamo. It would be like South Dakota selling Mount Rushmore. Every state has one central symbol, an artifact by which it is known to the rest of America. The Turnpike is ours.

The Turnpike is "so unbelievably awful, it's wonderful," in the words of Jim Coleman. He is an art photographer who was quoted in the 1989 book "Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike" by Rutgers professors Angus Gillespie and Michael Rockland. The two professors of American studies devoted 198 pages to describing the role the Turnpike plays in the mythos of the state and the nation.

"New Jersey is a centrifugal state, with few forces holding it together," they wrote. "There is little sense of community, of belonging, except on the local level. The Turnpike, therefore, plays a unifying role. It is New Jersey's automotive Mississippi."

I got Rockland on the phone the other day and asked him what he thought of selling the state symbol.

"Well, in the old days way, way back, turnpikes were private affairs," Rockland said. "On the other hand, it always seems to me: What are we gonna sell next? The Garden State Arts Center was bad enough. And then there was the Brendan Byrne Arena."

His comments frame the debate nicely. It is indeed true that turnpikes began as private roads. And it's also true that there is much to be said for private operation of such a road. In the hands of the politicians, the toll roads are patronage machines, convenient places to stash freeloaders and freeholders between election campaigns.

But that could be remedied without selling the road. The state need only hire a contractor to run the highway. The resultant savings would help avoid future toll hikes. Problem solved. Only that's not the problem they're solving. The problem is that the state government is broke. For years now, politicians of both parties have been handing public workers benefits the state can't afford. The pols have also been borrowing for big school construction projects that keep the contractors and urban political machines happy. So the state budget is permanently out of whack.

The way to deal with this is to cut costs. But as we've seen in the past few weeks, Corzine's no Scrooge. He's Santa Claus, and he'll be coming down a lot of chimneys tonight in the homes of public employees and public contractors.

Corzine is borrowing. And he's spending. Just the other day, Corzine was boasting of borrowing $270 million for stem cell research. And his fellow Democrats want another $12 billion for urban schools. Where's the money coming from? Time for a one-shot. In Trenton terms, a "one-shot" is a deal that gives a governor a lot of money instantly by selling off some asset. Jim McGreevey was the king of the one-shots. He raised billions by borrowing against future revenues for everything from the cigarette settlement to traffic tickets. He was like an indebted gambler whose pawnshop was on Wall Street.

Toward the end of McGreevey's reign, the state Supreme Court put a stop to the practice of bonding to balance the budget. And technically the proposed sale, which would include the Parkway and probably the Atlantic City Expressway as well as the Turnpike, would not violate the letter of the law. But as for the spirit of the law, that would be run over like a fawn in the fast lane.

Though this deal should be resisted on fiscal grounds, I suspect the public will find other reasons. State Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance argues that toll hikes would have to be permitted under the conditions of any sale. Truckers would seek alternate routes, such as crowded Route 31 through the heart of Lance's district in the western part of the state. "Tolls should be tied to transportation needs, not to outside profits," the Republican argues. I suspect most drivers agree. It's one thing to pay tolls for the maintenance of a road. It's quite another to pay tolls for the maintenance of the lifestyle of a state worker who decides to retire at 55.

Then there are all the other pitfalls of the plan, such as the new owner's likely insistence on a noncompete clause: The state would be prevented from improving public roads that might draw drivers away from the toll roads.

The experience with the sale of toll roads in Illinois and Indiana shows drivers dislike the entire experience. Politicians may love to sell roads, but the public isn't buying.

Paul Mulshine is a Star-Ledger columnist. He may be reached at pmulshine@starledger.

Copyright 2006 The Star-Ledger. Used by with permission.

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