Are Parkway tolls justifiable? Two sides of the debate.
Excerpts from Star-Ledger, August 19, 2001
Parkway tolls have their advocates. Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine and Phil Beachem, president of the New Jersey Alliance for Action, a statewide organization that monitors infrastructure issues, traded views on tolls in a series of e-mail volleys over the course of several days last week.
Note - CAT comments in blue are in response to what was said and did not appear in the column. I know it isn't fair to give Mr. Beachem a chance to respond, but hey, they didn't invite us to the debate!
Mulshine: Nothing seems more pointless to me than a system of paying for a road by having a state employee beg for spare change every few miles. That system might have made sense in the 1950's, but it is obsolete today. Why shouldn't we get rid of it?
Beachem: I believe that user-based financing is preferable to paying through general taxation. The Department of Transportation currently spends on average about $6,500 per lane mile to maintain state highways, while the Parkway spends $14,000. The difference in the road quality is obvious. Do we really want the Parkway to be another Route 17 or 22?
CAT: We want the Parkway to be another Rt. 80 or 287, not 17 or 22, which are maintained just fine at less than half the cost of the Parkway. The gas tax is also a user-based tax paid by Parkway drivers - one that's a whole lot more efficient than tolls. And if Beachem really believes tolls are preferable, why isn't he fighting to put them on Rt. 80 or 287?
Mulshine: Thanks for demonstrating the hysterical nature of the pro-toll movement. Route 22 and 17 are surface streets with traffic lights and stores along the shoulders. Is anyone proposing we put traffic lights on the Parkway and connect it to surface streets?
Beachem: As anti-toll advocates do, you never address the question of who pays for this program. At least acting governor's plan recognizes that it will cost $895 million over 10 years plus another $116 million per year thereafter. That translates into an extra $230 for the average New Jersey driver, whether they ride the Parkway or not. Is this toll relief or another shell game?
CAT: We always address that question - pay for the Parkway the same way as all the other roads. That is not a "shell game", it's simply giving Parkway drivers a fair share of their own taxes. The only shell game here is using Parkway drivers taxes on Rt. 80.
As for Beachem's numbers: "$895 million over 10 years" is only 2¢ at the gas pumps, and "$116 million thereafter" is 3¢ - that's only about $18 per year for a typical driver (15,000 mi./yr. @ 25 mpg). I guess that translates into $230, ...over 12 years.
Mulshine: Tolls are the most inefficient way conceivable to pay for a road. The Parkway wastes about $65 million a year collecting the tolls. The amount tolls actually generate, about $120 million a year, is less than one-half of 1 percent of the budget. I could name a dozen cuts that would free that money up. It's a pittance.
Beachem: Lots of people say "We can find the money in the budget cuts for the costs," but I haven't heard a specific budget line yet. The fact is that not only would we have to come up with $116 million annually to operate and maintain the Parkway, but we would also have to fund major capital improvements such as the Driscoll Bridge and the new entrance ramp for Route 78. Finally, if tolls are removed, we would lose about $50 million annually from out of state motorists. They would be the only ones to get a free ride.
CAT: First, tolls waste more than $50 million, so that negates all out-of-state money and them some. Plus, what about all the out-of-state money we're "losing" by not having tolls on all the toll-free Interstates? Second, out-of-state motorists pay gas tax while in NJ, so they too are being doubly taxed. Third, the Parkway can't seem to afford the $175 million repairs to the Driscoll Bridge, yet they can afford $488 million E-ZPass. Or why not just leave one tollbooth up at the Driscoll Bridge, charge $1, and remove it the minute the repair is complete?
Mulshine: Bad math. Out-of-state motorists contribute just a fifth of tolls, and one-fifth of the $120 million net collection is just $24 million.
Beachem: Your numbers are wrong. Parkway records show that out-of-state motorists pay $50 million each year in tolls.
CAT: Beachem missed a major point - one third of the $50 is wasted collecting it, netting only about $33 million for useful items (...or $24 million if Mulshine is right about it being one-fifth). Second, can the out-of state percentage be verified by someone? Sorry if I don't trust the Parkway's numbers.
Mulshine: Parkway spokesman Dennis Ingoglia says just one-fifth of the drivers are from out of state. So either he's wrong or you are. By the way, Parkway figures also show an average of 1 1/2 accidents per day at toll plazas. A head-on at the Raritan Plaza killed four people last week. I don't think people should die to pay for a road.
Beachem: Of course not, but the recent news of a large section of the Driscoll bridge under decking falling out underscores the need to replace the existing bridge for safety reasons. The Highway Authority also plans a new parallel bridge to deal with the congestion backups on the Parkway and on Routs 440 and 287 southbound onto the Parkway. Without the toll revenue to pay for this critical improvement, we'll have to wait another decade for this to happen with state funding.
CAT: If we didn't spend $488 million on E-ZPass, the Driscoll Bridge could have been fixed 3 times over. If it needs fixing, FIX IT. Use some of the $500 million bond issue voters recently passed earmarked for bridges - Parkway taxpayers pay into those bonds too, y'know. I have no problem with my money going for roads, but I hate it being wasted on collecting tolls. Plus, if toll are supposed to keep the Parkway in superior condition, how did they let the Driscoll Bridge deteriorate so much?
Mulshine: But is it not the case that as long as we have tolls we will have accidents every single day that could otherwise be avoided and that people will die?
Beachem: That's a ridiculous argument. Let's get real. When you factor in the new traffic that will come onto the road because it's free, you won't have to worry about accidents because no one will be going anywhere. The bottom line is that the anti-toll folks want everyone else in New Jersey to pick up the $1 billion mortgage on this roadway. It's a shell game pure and simple.
CAT: IF Beachem is right about more traffic will use the Parkway after toll removal, dozens of toll-free roads will enjoy less congestion - making it a benefit to many more than just those using the Parkway. It would also allow more people to take a shorter route, reducing pollution more. I'd pay for that. And as for the mortgage shell game, again, Parkway drivers have been paying everyone else's mortgage for almost 50 years.
Mulshine: There is going to be more traffic whether the road is free or not. The question is whether that traffic should have to stop every few miles for barriers at which people can be and will be killed. You are a group on contractors and you clearly seem to be putting your interests above those of the people who get stuck at these barriers. Can you name one pork-barrel project your group opposes?
Beachem: You'd be surprised to learn that both Mayors Jim McGreevey and Schundler are active members of the alliance. We can disagree without questioning people's motivations. To get back to the real question, I was wondering what your position is on the tolls on the other two toll roads - the Atlantic City Expressway and the New Jersey Turnpike? Do you support removal of these tolls as well?
CAT: Citizens Against Tolls supports the removal of tolls everywhere for all the reasons on our web site. The reason we focus on the Parkway is because 1) it is the worst system, and 2) we're trying to be realistic - one road at a time is hard enough.
Question for Mr. Beachem: Do you support ADDING tolls everywhere for all of your reasons? If tolls are so fair, then why aren't the other 98% of the roads using them?
Mulshine: No. The Expressway has just one barrier, which is not that big a deal. As for the Turnpike, its system would work okay if they ever got E-ZPass sorted out- a big "if." But the Parkway system is outmoded and dangerous. They've had half a century to sort this out. Instead they ran up $600 million in debt and their solution is to add even more tolls. What would these bozos have to do before you admit they're incompetent?
Beachem: Now you're getting back to my original point. It seems you're more interested in how the tolls are collected rather than if they are collected, which is what I pointed out at the beginning. User fees are the most equitable way to fund infrastructure systems. We use them for water, electric and gas - so why not for roadways?
I'm also glad that you finally acknowledged that there is a $600 million mortgage that must be paid by someone - either users of the Parkway or, under your scenario, by non-users.
CAT: Tolls always waste money, add to congestion and pollution, and unfairly doubly tax users - THAT is what CAT is opposed to, not just the method of how they collect the quarters. And we fully support keeping the Parkway funded through user fees - the Gas Tax.
Mulshine: Don't kid yourself. The Parkway crowd built up that debt so they'd have jobs for life and could keep charging us two user fees to use one road. When I buy my gas I've already paid my gas tax, which is a user fee for the highways. Then the Parkway charges me a second user fee. Why should I pay twice for one road?
Beachem: You don't pay twice. When you pay your state gas tax, none of the cash goes to the Parkway. The State of New Jersey provides no money to the Parkway. Again, let me ask you ...If it's acceptable for you to pay a toll on the Expressway or Turnpike, which you just said you're willing to do, then what makes it unacceptable to pay a toll on the Parkway? My sense is that it's not the toll you object to, but rather the inconvenient manner in which it is paid.
CAT: Parkway drivers most certainly are paying two user fees while driving on one road - tolls AND gas tax. What part of that does Beachem not understand?
Mulshine: You're right that none of my gas tax money goes to the Parkway. So why should I have to pay a gas tax when I'm driving on it? That's double taxation.
Beachem: Do you ever drive on Route 80, or Route 46 or Route 23?
CAT: ...And gas purchased on Rt. 80, 46, & 23 is used on the Parkway, so statistically it still works out to the gas sold on the Parkway. Beachem didn't even try to answer the question. But however you calculate it, it's still all the gas burned on the Parkway. And the more you use the Parkway, the more you're cheated. Plus it doesn't end with the gas tax. Parkway motorists pay into transportation bonds, yet never see a penny returned, and their taxes pay for police, but they have to pay for that again when on the Parkway.
Mulshine: We need a plan to phase them out, too, but first things first. And you are dodging the question: When I drive down Route 80, the tax on the gas in my tank pays for the road. When I drive the Parkway, I've paid the road tax and I'm also paying a toll, one that far exceeds the tax. The commute from my house to the Star-Ledger office costs me about $5 a week in gas tax but a whopping $14 in tolls. Why should a Parkway commuter pay $728 a year in tolls while a Route 78 commuter pays zero? Is that fair?
Beachem: Routes 78 and 80 are federally build and maintained roads paid for by money collected by the federal government. For the most part that Parkway has not been build or maintained with federal monies. Paul, you have a choice. You can ride the Parkway and pay our $14 a week in tolls, like I do, or you can save your money and ride the local roads to your office and pay no additional money. The choice is really yours. What I object to is your reaching into the pockets of non-Parkway users to help pay for your trip on a better road to your office.
CAT: Yeah, Paul, stop whining and take Route 78 and 80 to work and stop paying all those outrageous tolls.
Great choice Beachem gives us - waste money and pollute the air with tolls, or waste money and pollute the air by taking the long way. The BEST choice is to pay for the Parkway in the same efficient, clean way as Rt. 78 and 80.
And Mr. Beachem didn't answer the question - Why should Paul pay $728 a year in toll taxes plus about $75 a year in gas tax (amount of tax on $5 worth of gas per week) for the same service a Rt. 78 commuter gets for $75? How does Rt. 78 stay toll-free while the Parkway costs so much? Because Rt. 78 users get Paul's gas tax too, while the Parkway squanders one-third of the toll revenue simply collecting it.
Mulshine: Actually, 78 and 80 are paid for with a mix of state and federal monies. And you're right, I do have a choice: I can vote for candidates who will save me $14 a week, eliminate 500 accidents a year, reduce air pollution and save me a lot of hassles at toll plazas. As for those non-Parkway users, they're reaching into my pocket to maintain their roads. Why shouldn't they share the burden of maintaining my road?
Beachem: Since I haven't been able to convince you that user fees are a better way to pay for the Parkway, let's talk about your plan. Every financial expert who has looked at this issue will tell you that the existing bonds will have to be paid off if tolls are eliminated. Other than cutting out the statewide school construction program, which is mandated by the Supreme Court, how do you suggest the state raise the revenues necessary to pay off the existing $600 million mortgage and the $116 million needed annually to maintain the road in its current condition? Are you prepared to support raising the gasoline tax to pay these bills or will you take the easy way out and simply transfer the approximately $1 billion debt onto the backs of every taxpayer in the state by issuing more general obligation bonds?
CAT: Why isn't Beachem or these "financial experts" offended by the $billions wasted by tolls? The only way to pay down the Parkway debt is to get it out of the Parkway's hands, because they doing all they can to keep it high. As for who should pay it, again, I'd gladly pick up the Parkway's debt (for the road, not the tolls) if it meant ending the waste and pollution - whether it was the full $116 million to maintain it in it's "current condition", or less than half of that to maintain it in Rt. 78 condition. And don't forget, Parkway users are taxpayers too.
Mulshine: My position is the same as Bret Schundler's - in fact I think he got it from my columns. That $8.6 billion in school construction spending should go to the voters as the construction requires. Once they knock it down, as they should, we'll have more than enough to pay off the Parkway. It's just a blip in a huge and bloated state budget. Cut spending, cut tolls. And that's my final word. What's yours?
Beachem: Okay Paul, let's see if I can summarize your position: You want to save yourself $14 a week in tolls, but want to continue using the Parkway to get to and from work. You want to remove the toll barriers so we can finally end accidents on the Parkway one and for all. You want to continue having people pay tolls on the turnpike because they collect them in a more efficient manner. That is, of course, until such time as plans can be developed to remove those tolls as well.
And, you want to pay for all of this by eliminating the state wide school construction program for elementary and secondary schools that was mandated by the New Jersey Supreme Court. If I didn't know better, I'd swear I was living in a fantasy land.
CAT: I guess Mr. Beachem considers toll-free roads like Route 78, 80, and 287 fantasy land. Actually, Paul doesn't want to stop paying into the roads, he just wants to stop wasting $5 out of the $14 on collecting it, and get a fair share of the road taxes he already paid. By the way the gas tax will go up anyway, it's only a matter of time. Why not use the first 3¢ of it to remove tolls from the Parkway?
Note: CAT would love the chance to publicly debate toll advocates, but the Highway Authority tends to ignore us (...they don't even mention our group by name). But if anyone has strings to get them to the table....