On one side were New Jerseyans fed up with taxes and the cost of living in the state. On the other were commuters willing to pay higher tolls in order to ease traffic.
A beefy labor contingent saw new jobs in the toll increases and the massive rail, road and bridge projects they would fund. Environmentalists said widenings will encourage more driving and increase pollution.
It was a divided crowd of around 120 that came to Camden County Community College last night to weigh in on a plan to more than double New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway tolls by 2012. The increases would pay for widening both roads and help fund a commuter rail tunnel to New York.
A separate hearing on a proposed 50 percent increase in Atlantic City Expressway tolls next year drew a sparse audience. It was held at the same time as the turnpike and parkway forum.
The events were the first of three hearings on each plan.
Opponents said they already pay enough.
"We pay some of the highest taxes in the nation and no one seems to be able to tell us where our taxes are going," said Joseph Pauli, of Sicklerville.
Fred Lederer of Stratford said, "I think everyone in the state is getting upset at what's going on. They should stop hurting the little guy."
But Carol Ebischbach-Lowden, of West Berlin, described the nightmare traffic around exit 8A on the Turnpike, where new lanes would be added under the proposal.
"The Turnpike needs to be widened for the safety and convenience of the motoring public," she said.
Marty Doyle, of Medford, agreed. "If it is going to improve safety and ease the congestion, I'm willing to go along with a user fee," Doyle said.
The overall reaction yesterday was more balanced than at hearings earlier this year on more drastic toll hikes proposed by Gov. Corzine, with members of the laborers, carpenters and operating engineers unions filling several rows of seats, cheering speakers who backed the toll hikes.
Robert Grap, a construction worker from Gibbstown, said the plan means jobs to thousands of laborers.
"It keeps food on the table," Grap said.
Under the plan, the average turnpike driver's $1.20 trip would increase to $2.70 by 2012. A 35-cent Parkway toll would increase to 75 cents.
Both roads would then see 5 percent increases in 2018 and 2023, bringing the $2.70 turnpike toll to $3 by 2023 and the 75-cent Parkway toll to 85 cents.
Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri said that price would still be less than the cost of a doughnut.
"If we are willing as a society to pay $1.06 for one strawberry doughnut, I think it makes sense that we could ask ourselves to pay 50 cents more over 15 years to keep our bridges safe," Kolluri said.
He said new revenue is also needed to help the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which runs the turnpike and parkway, pay its debt.
Tolls would increase by 50 percent on the Atlantic City Expressway next year under the South Jersey Transportation Authority plan. That would mean a trip from Philadelphia to Atlantic City would cost $3.75, up from $2.50.
That increase would pay to widen 23 miles of the road and for other projects.
Commissioners of the two authorities proposed the increases and still have to vote on them. Gov. Corzine would have the final say.
Kolluri said the tunnel to New York, which would get $1.25 billion of toll money, could double the number of trains to Manhattan, potentially easing congestion on northern parts of the Turnpike.
Barclay Conrad of Blackwood, asked why South Jersey residents should pay for a North Jersey tunnel. "There's some things that aren't balanced there," Conrad said.
Republicans have challenged the toll plans, saying the state should cut money in other areas.
They also note that the plans do nothing to replenish the state's Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for projects throughout New Jersey and is projected to run dry in 2011.