By David Cruz
Toll collectors say they work in constant fear that their jobs will be on the chopping block if the Christie administration goes forward with its plan to privatize the toll collection and E-ZPass systems. Today, they showed up again at the Turnpike Authority’s regular meeting to share their stories.
“I love my job. I am so scared of privatization,” said toll collector Nancy Kleckner. “I want to keep my job. I want to keep my house. I bought a car in 2010 thinking that I was going to be able to make payments.”
Toll collector Wanda Vidal said since the state announced its plan for privatization of toll collections, she has been stressing about her future. “This worries me every day,” she said. “I’m always thinking: am I going to become homeless? Am I going to be able to feed my kids? This is something that I don’t want my kids to see.”
Gov. Christie has called privatizing toll collections “low-hanging fruit” in his across the board privatization plans. He says New Jersey doesn’t need state employees, with benefits and pensions, taking tolls on state roads. He says the plan makes sense and will help forestall future toll hikes. But Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski says toll takers are more than just low-hanging fruit.
“The administration already made a deal with the toll collectors in the past,” he said. “They said if you can agree to certain savings, you’ll save your job, and so the toll collectors agreed to concessions that were unprecedented and drastically, almost more than half, reduced the price of toll collectors to the Turnpike. After they did that, now they’re looking at eliminating their jobs completely.”
The Authority has extended the period for companies to submit responses to its requests for proposals (or RFPs) several times. Kevin McCarthy heads the union representing toll workers. He says it’s unfair to ask for more from toll workers, whose wages, he says, have been steadily falling since they agreed to concessions a few years back.
“The salary at that time  was about $65,000,” he said. “Today it’s down to about $48,900 for the collectors that were left over. The new collectors being hired are being hired at $12 an hour and that still puts them below the poverty level.”
There used to be around 1,000 full-time toll collectors on the Turnpike and Parkway; today that number is closer to 200 on the Turnpike and 130 on the Parkway. But if the Authority succeeds in privatizing the toll collection and E-ZPass system, toll collectors actually employed by the Turnpike Authority will number zero.
The Authority has extended the deadline for the RFP to Aug. 8, with a final vote expected at its October meeting. Meanwhile, the union says it will continue its efforts to put a face to the numbers.