TRENTON - As a poll confirmed that Gov. Corzine's plan to increase road tolls to cut debt and fund transportation would be a tough sell to New Jersey residents, a key senator said yesterday that she could not support placing tolls on Route 440.
Sen. Barbara Buono, the Senate budget committee chairwoman, said that putting tolls on Route 440 - a four-mile Middlesex County road that links the New Jersey Turnpike and a Staten Island bridge crossing - was unacceptable.
"It's a nonstarter," said Buono (D., Middlesex), who will play a lead role in how Corzine's plan proceeds. "That's one element of the plan that I could not support."
Buono is the latest - and highest-ranking - state senator to decry tolls on Route 440. Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) told the Star-Ledger of Newark that he also opposed tolls on Route 440.
Buono has scheduled the first legislative hearing on Corzine's plan to pay at least half of $32 billion in state debt and fund transportation projects through increased tolls.
The Senate budget committee will hear testimony on the plan Wednesday. A bill to implement Corzine's plan has not been introduced, but Buono said the panel must "examine in excruciating detail, piece by piece, what he's trying to create."
Republicans, meanwhile, alleged that Corzine was trying to strong-arm support for his plan by saying that failure to solve the state's fiscal problems would mean a risk to continued property-tax relief and no money for projects such as widening Route 17.
"New Jersey taxpayers should not be pawns in a political blackmail plot," said Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R., Morris).
The Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll found 56 percent of respondents opposed Corzine's plan to increase tolls to solve state fiscal problems, with 15 percent supporting it.
The poll found 29 percent undecided. But when asked which direction they leaned, most of the undecided said they were opposed, meaning 70 percent were at least somewhat opposed to Corzine's proposal.
"I don't think I had any false expectations that people would say this was the best thing since sliced bread," Corzine said Wednesday. "No one likes to raise tolls."
Corzine wants to increase tolls 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. Those increases would include inflation adjustments, and after 2022 tolls would increase every four years until 2085 to reflect inflation.
The Atlantic Expressway, Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike would be affected, and tolls would be added to Route 440.
Other options, the Democratic governor said, included steep boosts in income, sales and gas taxes, and major budget cuts that he asserted would harm vital government services.
But the poll found that 65 percent of respondents said it would be possible to tackle fiscal problems through spending cuts.
"State government's performance over the past few years has done little to convince the typical New Jersey taxpayer that Trenton is not rampant with pork," said Patrick Murray, the poll director.
Last week, Corzine told the Associated Press that tolls should be added to Route 440, but said: "It is not going to be the make-or-break piece."
Corzine has denied trying to push people into supporting his plan by threatening to cut or refuse funding for projects. Rather, he said, if nothing is done, debt costs will continue to rise and make it difficult to continue programs and invest in new ones.
"We have what I believe is a financial emergency," Corzine said.