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South Jersey Officials Oppose Toll Road Merger

Almost every New Jersey governor since William T. Cahill in the early 1970s has discussed merging the state’s three toll roads under one government superagency. Each eventually did a U-turn away from the idea.

Atlantic City Expressway
Dan Alexander, Townsquare Media NJ

Now, some believe the toll-road consolidation plan may be revived following the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s takeover of Atlantic City International Airport last year.

When the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike were merged under one agency in 2003, then-Gov. Jim McGreevey cited the South Jersey Transportation Authority’s multifaceted mission in putting the turnpike and parkway under the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, but leaving out the Atlantic City Expressway.

The expressway was excluded due to legal and financial complexities attached to the joint operation of the Atlantic City Expressway and the airport by one agency, the SJTA. But one transportation analyst asserted the ties between the airport and expressway were cut when the SJTA was relieved of Atlantic City International’s operation by the Port Authority.

Tony Marino, who was an expressway executive for 25 years before retiring in 2003, also believes the expressway could become vulnerable to a takeover by the Turnpike Authority unless South Jersey lawmakers shield it from a merger.

“The unstated reason by South Jersey politicians to keep the SJTA and the Atlantic City Expressway in South Jersey hands is to protect the patronage influence in South Jersey. It’s not just Democrats but Republicans. They just don’t want to give up control over jobs at the SJTA,” Marino told The Press of Atlantic City.

Marino cited himself as an example of how the patronage game works. His appointment to an expressway executive job in 1979 was made by then-state Sen. Steven P. Perskie, an Atlantic County Democrat. Marino had helped Perskie get elected by managing his Senate campaign.

Most of the governors since the 1970s have considered merging or placing tighter controls on all three state toll roads, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie has not advocated such a plan.

State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said there are no discussions with the Governor’s Office to fold the expressway into the Turnpike Authority. However, Whelan acknowledged there always is a chance the proposal could be resurrected amid the Port Authority’s takeover of the airport.

“You never say never,” Whelan said. “The Port Authority has operational control of the airport. But it does not have complete control.”

Under a deal worked out in July, the Port Authority took charge of Atlantic City International’s management, but the SJTA remained the airport’s owner. The Port Authority’s clout in the aviation industry is seen as key to attracting new airlines to the Atlantic City market. The giant agency also operates the Kennedy, LaGuardia and Stewart airports in New York and the Newark Liberty and Teterboro airports in New Jersey.

Whelan argued that as long as the SJTA remains the airport’s owner, there is still a “financial interconnectiveness” between the airport and the expressway that should keep the expressway under SJTA control.

“The revenues from the expressway are still tied to the financial obligations the airport has,” Whelan said. “That did not change when the Port Authority came in. They don’t own it at this point.”

The expressway is the main artery to Atlantic City, traveled by 53 million vehicles annually and generating more than $79 million in toll revenue. The airport, on the other hand, never turned a profit under the SJTA’s control and handles just 1.4 million passengers each year.

Unique bond covenants allowing the expressway to subsidize the airport always have complicated efforts to fold the expressway’s operations into the Turnpike Authority. Geographic considerations also have popped up over the years. South Jersey officials have worried the expressway could be overshadowed by the larger turnpike and parkway and fall under the influence of North Jersey politicians.

“If you merge the expressway with the turnpike, all of the commissioners are going to be from North Jersey,” said Jeffrey April, an SJTA commissioner and attorney in Cape May County. “There won’t be one commissioner from the area along the expressway. If something happens, there will be nobody to argue the local view.”

April said the parkway’s merger with the turnpike led to the removal of all of the commissioners who represented the parkway’s South Jersey counties.

“Now there is no commissioner from Ocean County on south, which is a substantial portion of the parkway,” he said.

Whelan also raised concerns about the SJTA’s decision-making power being shifted to North Jersey if the expressway is merged with the parkway and turnpike. He said those concerns are a chief reason why he would oppose plans to consolidate all three toll roads if legislation for a merger is introduced.

“I’m certainly not a supporter of `Let’s give the airport to the Port Authority and wrap up the expressway with the parkway and turnpike,”‘ Whelan said. “The parkway has shown in a number of instances that it is somewhat out of touch with what’s going on in South Jersey.”

Recent controversies involving the parkway’s operation in Atlantic and Cape May counties underscore the mistake of not having South Jersey representation on the toll road’s operating agency, Whelan maintained.

Since 2011, the parkway has come under criticism for a massive tree cutting to make way for a widening project from Ocean County to Atlantic County as well as the installation of unsightly and intrusive security fencing along the Great Egg Harbor Bridge into Cape May County.

“I think those things show there was a lack of local representation on the parkway authority. That would certainly lead to me not supporting the merger,” Whelan said.

Marino speculated the unfolding political scandal involving two high-level Christie appointees at the Port Authority could block any serious discussions of having the expressway and SJTA’s operations merged with the parkway and turnpike.

Christie’s Port Authority appointees, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, have resigned following a state investigation of their roles in the closing of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge that caused backups on the New Jersey side in Fort Lee, Bergen County. Emails and texts show that access lanes on the bridge were shut down to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse the Republican governor’s re-election. Denying any involvement in the scandal, Christie has blamed a staff member and others loyal to him for ordering the lane closures without his knowledge.

“This may not be the right time to move the SJTA into the influence of the Turnpike Authority. The fiasco of the Port Authority with the George Washington Bridge exposes that some political appointees can gum up the works,” Marino said.

 

(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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