IHAVE a confession.
I HATE the Delaware River Port Authority. DESPISE the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. LOATHE the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Am REPULSED by the Burlington County Bridge Commission.
I hate them all because they are wasteful patronage havens, often corrupt and largely unaccountable to the public.
But most of all I hate them because they collect the tolls.
The Benjamin Franklin Bridge cost about $40 million or so to build in 1926. It was planned as a toll-free span. But Pennsylvania and New Jersey argued so vociferously over the toll idea (New Jersey wanted a toll, Pennsylvania didn't) that the dispute actually halted work on the bridge. New Jersey won, and it opened with a 25-cent toll. Still, motorists were assured that once the cost of the bridge was paid off, the tolls would be gone.
Now, 81 years later, we're facing a toll increase of anywhere from 33 to 66 percent, upping the tolls from $3 to $4 - or even $5. There are now four Delaware River bridges controlled by the DRPA and tolls from those bridges generate $195 million every year. But the DRPA's combined operating and capital budgets have ballooned to nearly $270 million a year and the agency's CEO just received a salary increase bringing his annual pay package to $213,076.
On top of that, the recent war between New Jersey and Pennsylvania over dredging the Delaware cost the DRPA $5.5 million in bond interest because the impasse kept the agency from renegotiating its debt at lower rates.
How's that for efficiency?
Meanwhile, over in New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine says he's prepared to stake his political future on a wacky plan to tackle the state's $32 billion debt by forming a non-profit agency that would manage toll roads and issue bonds to generate cash for the state. The technique is called "monetization," but the fancy title simply means higher tolls.
How much higher? At least 50 percent higher - from $1.92 for the typical trip on the turnpike to nearly $3. And even that much of an increase will raise only an estimated $15 billion.
Of course, we can't forget plans by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to increase tolls for drivers passing between those two states. Under the latest scheme, motorists would pay $8 during rush hours to cross the Hudson River tunnels and bridges, up from $6. All this while the Port Authority continues to spend money on projects (like $6.2 million for construction of the Bronx Library Center) that have nothing to do with transportation. And this is a big part of the problem. Agencies like the New York/New Jersey Authority and the DRPA continue to fund projects that appear to be completely out of their reason for being.
For example, the Burlington County Bridge Commission recently pledged additional funding for site planning on a Route 73 redevelopment zone that would include an Expo Center. And the commission also acts as an improvement authority to pool multimillion-dollar bond projects with the county. This is the same Burlington County Bridge Commission whose former spokesman and lobbyist recently pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion.
Considering all that, you'd think our public officials would've learned something from the 24 states that have no toll roads.
THE Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is now holding hearings on a plan to impose tolls on I-80 - even though polls show that nearly two out of three Pennsylvanians oppose it.
There is one way to end this madness: Disband all these agencies and demolish the toll booths. Let the states pay for their own highways - with or without federal help as the case may be. And let the states equally share the costs of bridges and tunnels. End of story.
I call my quest the Movement to End All Tolls (MEAT). Anyone care to join? *