Toll hikes the last trick of a very desperate man

GREG BEAN

To understand just how confused many New Jersey residents are over Gov. Jon Corzine’s plan to dramatically increase the fees on the New Jersey Turnpike and other toll roads, take a look at the man on the street interviews in the Jan. 24 edition of Greater Media’s newspaper the Atlanticville.

Every week in some of our papers, we send a reporter out with a camera to ask questions of random folks. We print their pictures and their answers to the questions, and it’s a popular feature in our publications. Last week the question was, “In light of Corzine’s proposed toll increase, what would you say to him at a town hall meeting?”

The town hallmeetings in question are those the governor has promised to hold in all the state’s 21 counties to explain his plan to increase the tolls on the Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, the Atlantic City Expressway and Route 440 in Middlesex County. He wants to use the revenue to help pay off the state’s $32 billion debt. Understandably, lots of people are unclear on the concept.

Of the four people interviewed by our reporter, two expressed anger at the toll hike proposal because they believed the roads should have been paid off already. They thought the toll hikes were being proposed to pay off the bonds that initially financed construction of the roads.

In truth, the initial bond debt on those roads was paid off decades ago. But instead of turning the roads over to the state highway system and abandoning the tolls once the bonds were retired- as had been promised- the greedheads in Trenton decided to keep the tolls and use the revenue to build and fund a huge bureaucracy to run the roads and provide patronage jobs. If there was any money left over, it went to the state’s general fund.

Our first mistake was believing them in the first place. One of the cardinal rules of politics is that once you impose a tax, or a charge, you never, ever reduce it or give the money back.

That money is like heroin to state bureaucrats: one taste and they’re hooked for life. Sure, there have been movements to get rid of the tolls. The last of any import was derailed by then-Gov. James Mc- Greevey, who gave us E-ZPass as a compromise. None of those movements got very far. Now, Corzine has decided that the kick he gets from the toll-heroin no longer gives him enough of a buzz, and he wants to double or triple the dosage.

As philosophically bankrupt notions go, this one is a humdinger. In a recent interview, Corzine basically admitted that none of the lawmakers in either the Democratic or Republican parties have the willpower to do what needs to be done to reduce the budget because it’s political suicide to support cutting the number of state workers and programs.

Corzine knows taxes are about as high as they can go without precipitating an actual revolution, so substantial tax hikes are out.And because he thinks our elected representatives in the Assembly and Senate will never have the sand to fix the problem (he’s right, by the way), the only idea he’s got is “asset monetization.” In other words, he wants to increase tolls by 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022.

The plan wouldmake it so expensive to travel the toll roads that alternatives like Route 1 would become even worse nightmares than they already are as drivers search for a way to get from Point A (the Newark airport, for example) to Point B (the capital in Trenton) without having to pay the equivalent of amortgage payment in tolls.

Still, Corzine is desperate to see it implemented because it’s the only trick his pony knows. He’s demanded a lot of personal information about people who want to attend one of his town meetings so he won’t be drygulched by opponents, and there’s some speculation that his office had a hand in the arrest last week of former Bogota Mayor Steven Lonagan and South Jersey radio personality Seth Grossman.

The pair had turned up to picket one of the town meetings in Cape May at a public school and claimcops told themCorzine didn’t want any opponents to his plan hanging around. Then, when the protesters declined to leave, the cops arrested Lonagan and Grossman for trespass.

That outrageous behavior resulted in calls for a federal probe of the arrests and Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen) likening our governor to Joe Stalin. Ouch!

So what’s the solution to the state’s financial dilemma? I don’t know for sure because it’s truly messed up, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t increased tolls.

For a real solution, I believe we have to think about something Middlesex County Freeholder Director David B. Crabiel said last week that was reported in Greater Media’s publication the Sentinel.

Discussing his frustration with this year’s freeholder budget, and noting that “economy and cost-cutting notwithstanding, we may now have reached the point where, absent meaningful tax reform at the state level, no amount of fiscal conservatism or efficiency by county government can offset the rising costs of goods and services,” Crabiel spelled out the bottom line.

“If the governor and the Legislature are unable or unwilling to deal with the issue of tax reform in New Jersey,” he said, “then they should enact legislation that would convene a limited constitutional convention to allow people to reform the property tax system in New Jersey for themselves.”

I’ve been writing about the absolute necessity of a constitutional convention on property tax reform for a couple of years now because I don’t believe we can trust our lawmakers to fix this wagon for us. Mine hasn’t been the only voice, of course, but I haven’t been holdingmy breath until someone in power decides to listen.

The sad fact is that the last thing our elected lawmakers want is us (the voters and taxpayers) taking our destinies into our own hands. To them, the very notion of a constitutional convention is anathema because it takes them out of the loop and pushes them forcibly away from the trough.

But if respected politicians and elder statesmen like David B. Crabiel start raising their voices in support of a convention, the people in Trenton will eventually have to pay heed and let us fix the problem.

Bravo! And hats off to David Crabiel.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of GreaterMedia Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.