South Jersey officials oppose toll road merger

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - Almost every New Jersey governor since William T. Cahill in the early 1970s has discussed merging the state’s three toll roads under one government superagency. Each eventually did a U-turn away from the idea.

Now, some believe the toll-road consolidation plan may be revived following the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s takeover of Atlantic City International Airport last year.

When the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike were merged under one agency in 2003, then-Gov. Jim McGreevey cited the South Jersey Transportation Authority’s multifaceted mission in putting the turnpike and parkway under the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, but leaving out the Atlantic City Expressway.

The expressway was excluded due to legal and financial complexities attached to the joint operation of the Atlantic City Expressway and the airport by one agency, the SJTA. But one transportation analyst asserted the ties between the airport and expressway were cut when the SJTA was relieved of Atlantic City International’s operation by the Port Authority.

Tony Marino, who was an expressway executive for 25 years before retiring in 2003, also believes the expressway could become vulnerable to a takeover by the Turnpike Authority unless South Jersey lawmakers shield it from a merger.

“The unstated reason by South Jersey politicians to keep the SJTA and the Atlantic City Expressway in South Jersey hands is to protect the patronage influence in South Jersey. It’s not just Democrats but Republicans. They just don’t want to give up control over jobs at the SJTA,” Marino told The Press of Atlantic City (http://bit.ly/1dNVjAR).

Marino cited himself as an example of how the patronage game works. His appointment to an expressway executive job in 1979 was made by then-state Sen. Steven P. Perskie, an Atlantic County Democrat. Marino had helped Perskie get elected by managing his Senate campaign.

Most of the governors since the 1970s have considered merging or placing tighter controls on all three state toll roads, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie has not advocated such a plan.

State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said there are no discussions with the Governor’s Office to fold the expressway into the Turnpike Authority. However, Whelan acknowledged there always is a chance the proposal could be resurrected amid the Port Authority’s takeover of the airport.

“You never say never,” Whelan said. “The Port Authority has operational control of the airport. But it does not have complete control.”

Under a deal worked out in July, the Port Authority took charge of Atlantic City International’s management, but the SJTA remained the airport’s owner. The Port Authority’s clout in the aviation industry is seen as key to attracting new airlines to the Atlantic City market. The giant agency also operates the Kennedy, LaGuardia and Stewart airports in New York and the Newark Liberty and Teterboro airports in New Jersey.

Whelan argued that as long as the SJTA remains the airport’s owner, there is still a “financial interconnectiveness” between the airport and the expressway that should keep the expressway under SJTA control.

“The revenues from the expressway are still tied to the financial obligations the airport has,” Whelan said. “That did not change when the Port Authority came in. They don’t own it at this point.”

The expressway is the main artery to Atlantic City, traveled by 53 million vehicles annually and generating more than $79 million in toll revenue. The airport, on the other hand, never turned a profit under the SJTA’s control and handles just 1.4 million passengers each year.

Unique bond covenants allowing the expressway to subsidize the airport always have complicated efforts to fold the expressway’s operations into the Turnpike Authority. Geographic considerations also have popped up over the years. South Jersey officials have worried the expressway could be overshadowed by the larger turnpike and parkway and fall under the influence of North Jersey politicians.

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