NJ Turnpike Authority Considers Privatizing Toll Collectors

By Christie Duffy

The Christie administration claims it could equal big savings, but Democratic lawmakers and union leaders are urging the Turnpike Authority to abandon plans to privatize toll workers.

At the Authority’s board meeting today, 15 speakers stepped to the podium to decry the proposal.

“I’m here to ask this Authority to scrap its plans,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney said.

“Our toll collectors have repeatedly made concessions under the threat of privatizing. In fact when the proposal to privatize this service was contemplated several years ago, they suffered a 25 percent loss in their salaries,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.

“They made the wage concessions, in exchange for a promise by the Authority to protect their livelihood. If privatization were to become a reality, the private company may hire back only some of the former Turnpike workers,” said Hudson County Central Labor Council President Peter Busacca.

About 800 jobs on the New Jersey Turnpike and Parkway could be at stake.

“It would change my life, tremendously. Financially, emotionally, mentally, you name it,” said toll collector Henderson Fleming.

Union leaders say the Authority already achieved its savings goals set out in 2011, in part, by slashing their pay.

Since then, tolls have doubled. And the agency has agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars towards New Jersey’s transportation fund.

The fund is cash for state road, bridge and tunnel projects. But it’s been on the verge of bankruptcy for years. And that’s a multi-billion dollar problem this one-shot fix won’t be big enough to patch.

“The governor has to come back to us with a plan to fund the Transportation Trust Fund. It’s broke. And he hasn’t offered a solution to it yet. Privatizing toll collectors is solving nothing,” Sweeney said.

But Republicans say privatization could mean some cost savings for toll and taxpayers.

“The taxpayers are owed the best possible value on the dollar. So if someone is doing a job today for $80,000 say, and we can find someone to fill it for $50,000, that’s what we ought to do. Each one of our state employees comes with not only a decent wage package but also a pension-benefits package, defined benefit plans for years and years and years. If those liabilities can be avoided, the taxpayers will profit mightily,” said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll.

The Authority’s chairman declined to talk about the ongoing proposal.

“No comment until it’s time to vote,” said James Simpson, state transportation commissioner.

Proposals from private companies who want to run New Jersey’s toll system are due in early May. The Authority could vote on this as early as late May. But I’m told they’re most likely to vote in June or July.