TRENTON - New Jersey could get up to $15 billion by leasing toll roads to a private company that would increase tolls annually but give the state money to pay debt and free cash for school construction, property tax relief and other needs, a state lawmaker said yesterday.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak said he will introduce legislation Monday that would authorize the state to lease the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and the PNC Bank Arts Center, which is operated by the Turnpike Authority.
"New Jersey is at a crossroad," said Lesniak (D., Union). "We cannot raise taxes or increase our debt, but we have obligations to invest in our future that we must make or we will go backwards as a state."
State Treasurer Bradley Abelow welcomed Lesniak's ideas, but said he didn't know how much the state could earn from such a deal and emphasized he wouldn't discuss it even if he did know.
Abelow said he hoped the administration would decide in the next month or two whether to recommend to Gov. Corzine that the state proceed with leasing state assets, but stressed that there would be no rush.
"This is way too important and way too sensitive and difficult a set of questions," Abelow said at a Rutgers University symposium on toll road leases.
Corzine hasn't endorsed leasing toll roads, but has said the state will need to find a way to make cash from state properties if it's to solve chronic financial problems.
"We are still in the analysis phase," Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri said.
Lesniak said the state has little choice, noting state government faces $50 billion in debt and unfunded government worker pension and health benefit costs. Without a new means to raise money, the state will have no way to pay for obligations such as school construction, open space preservation and highway and bridge improvements, he said.
"I think it's well worth it to do bold things now that will provide rewards for future generations," Lesniak said.
His plan proposes:
Allowing annual toll increases tied to the consumer price index for cars and the gross domestic product for commercial vehicles.
Requiring state police patrols and unfettered access for state homeland security officials.
Requiring a state-chosen engineer certify maintenance for leased toll roads.
Requiring a private vendor to retain all toll road employees for two collective bargaining agreements or six years, whichever is longer.
"I am confident that conditions that have to be met will protect the motoring public and, most importantly, the people of New Jersey," Lesniak said.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, is skeptical of leasing toll roads.
"The financial problems we are currently facing in this state were decades in the making," he said. "Attempting to solve them overnight with a long-term lease of the Turnpike or other toll roads is not a rational solution."