Wednesday, February 28, 2007

In New Jersey: "We want to hear from people and get their input into the process."

Public to have say on toll roads' fate


The Associated Press
Copyright 2007

TRENTON — Though Gov. Corzine has yet to propose a plan to lease New Jersey toll roads, his administration is already promising it won't auction off Garden State toll roads without public input.

Polls have shown huge opposition among residents, and just two of 120 state legislators support putting the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway or Atlantic City Expressway into private hands. Lawmakers are already discussing ways to block it even before a plan is proposed.

"I'm not enthused," said Thomas Frawley of Toms River.

But once a proposal is ready, Corzine plans a big pitch to convince residents and lawmakers that making billions off state properties is a good way to pay down debt and pay for other crucial state needs.

"We're not going to spring anything on people," state Treasurer Bradley Abelow said. "There's going to be a deliberative and I think structured and lengthy public process in addition to the legislative process, assuming we decide to go ahead."

Besides leasing toll roadways, the administration is also looking at ideas like leasing the lottery and selling development naming rights of state properties to raise billions.

Abelow has been leading the state's analysis of how to proceed and said he hopes to make recommendations to Corzine in four to six weeks. Once a plan is unveiled, Abelow said he expects to see heavy public involvement that could last months and involve public hearings.

"We want to hear from people and get their input into the process," Abelow said. "We also might change what we think based on what we hear from the public."

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Assembly Transportation Committee chairman, said legislators will continue demanding answers from the administration, even if no plan has been proposed.

"You're taking tomorrow's revenues and you're spending it today, and that's an issue that concerns many of the members here," said Wisniewski, D-Middlesex. "It's appropriate for this committee to ask those questions."

Other states have leased roadways for cash. Chicago will get $1.83 billion for a 99-year lease of the Chicago Skyway. Indiana will get $3.85 billion for a 75-year lease of its toll road.

However, tolls will increase regularly in those states and lawmakers here are wary of similar deals coming to New Jersey.

Abelow said they won't, and noted that lawmakers' support is crucial since legislators will have to approve bidding for private companies to submit lease proposals.

"We're not going to compromise on the safety, maintenance, security, operations — you can go right down the list," Abelow said. "We need to come back to the governor with a plan that meets his conditions and we're not sure that what we've seen in Chicago and Indiana does that."

© 2007 The Associated Press:

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