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N.J. toll collectors fear for their future

Union leaders want to stop the Turnpike Authority from privatizing collection, further pay cuts.

TRENTON Working in a metal booth in the middle of a highway - while traffic zooms by and choking exhaust fumes fill the air - may not sound like an ideal job to most people.

But the unions representing toll collectors on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike are fighting to protect those jobs as technology cuts into the workforce and plans for privatization become more intense.

Union leaders worry that toll takers may disappear unless they are able to stop the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates the parkway and turnpike, from privatizing the fare-collection system on both roads.

"It's just a shame what is being done. They're in constant fear of losing their jobs," said Kevin McCarthy, president of Local 194 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents the turnpike's toll collectors.

The Turnpike Authority has decided to accept bids for a company to oversee toll collection, including the toll takers and the E-ZPass system. The authority says it may save millions of dollars by making the switch. The issue was debated in 2011, but privatization was avoided because the unions agreed to salary cuts and other concessions.

"At the time, our toll collectors were making about $65,000 a year. That was 50 percent higher than the median salary at other tolling agencies," said Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the authority.

With salary cuts of about 25 percent, the full-time toll collectors saw their pay reduced to $49,500 annually.

Feeney also said the union contracts once were filled with perquisites and expenses that the state comptroller had criticized.

Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers in Washington, accused the authority of trying to squeeze the toll collectors and their salaries even more. He predicted that the parkway and turnpike could wind up with nothing but low-paid, low-skilled toll takers if the jobs are privatized.

Feeney, however, said a governor's task force has concluded that toll collection is an area where outsourcing the jobs "could produce significant savings without compromising quality in any way."