Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Friends don't let friends monetize."

Lawmakers blast turnpike sale idea

February 15, 2007

Gannett State Bureau (New Jersey)
Courier Post Online
Copyright 2007

SECAUCUS Assembly lawmakers took turns today battering a proposal to lease or sell the state's toll roads. Democrats and Republicans on the Assembly Transportation Committee worried a private firm would put profits over maintenance, safety and smooth travel.

"Friends don't let friends monetize," said Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, winning laughs and applause from the roughly 60 person audience at the first public hearing on a proposal to sell or lease the New Jersey Turnpike or Garden State Parkway.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, the committee chairman, warned that any "monetization" plan would be similar to past borrowing schemes that have led to the state's crushing debts. Selling or leasing state assets is now being promoted as a way to ease those burdens.

Wisniewski said a long-term privatization plan would still leave the public on the hook for billions of dollars of debt through higher tolls.

Without legislative support, any plan to sell or lease the state's toll roads could be blocked, according to Wisniewski.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, has proposed privatizing toll roads as a way to reduce what he said is now $100 billion in state debt. Cutting debt payments would free up money for schools, higher education and open space, Lesniak said.

"If we do not reduce our debt and meet our obligations, our state will go backward, without any hope of recovery," Lesniak said.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine's administration is examining options for selling state assets, including roads or the state lottery. He has focused on reducing debt to pay for needed programs.

Labor union representatives said private investors might be less likely than a public agency to plow roads during storms like the one that struck Wednesday.

"In its simplest terms, toll roads are meant to be our roads," said Leonard Schiro, an attorney representing the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 196.

Geoffrey Segal, of the Washington-based Reason Foundation, said privatization represents a "new paradigm" in road operations that can provide public bodies with a cash infusion.

© 2007

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