WOODBRIDGE – With a May deadline looming for private firms to submit proposals to take over toll collection duties on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, two Trenton powerhouses urged the Turnpike Authority’s board to scrap plans to privatize, saying such a plan offers no proven savings.
At a packed meeting that drew union officials, toll collectors and a family advocacy group, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, told the agency’s board that the hundreds of toll collectors that work in booths on the two toll roads already sacrificed three years ago when they agreed to salary cuts as high as $20,000 per year because it meant they could keep jobs that offer health care and a pension.
“After they made this huge sacrifice … they are going to end up on our Medicaid program or our Family Care plan and the taxpayers are going to pay one way or another,” Weinberg said.
Sweeney said the state could find bigger savings by slashing administrative positions and salaries, rather than through privatization. He said he had yet to hear of the savings that would come from privatization.
Turnpike Authority Spokesman Thomas Feeney said the impact of privatization won’t be known until the agency sees the proposals that come in from companies.
About 15 people spoke at the hearing, including two toll collectors and the chairman of the Essex County Democrats, who said his 27-year-old son is a toll collector, who believes in hard work.
State Assemblyman Troy Singleton – who was a member of the Turnpike Authority’s board in 2011 when it agreed not to privatize in exchange for the dramatic pay cuts that occurred over two years – did not attend the meeting, but submitted a letter to the board opposing privatization.
Weinberg, noting the state’s firing of a private company that was hired to distribute money to victims of Superstorm Sandy, said the state did not have a good history with privatization. One problem, she said, is that the public does not have access to the financial transactions for a private company the way it does for a public agency.
The Turnpike Authority was preparing to vote in 2011 to privatize toll collection services when it struck a deal with toll collectors to keep their jobs for two years. At the time, at least two of the agency’s board members expressed disapproval of the plan to allow a private business to handle toll collection for the first time in the agency’s more than 50-year history. It was unclear whether the Christie administration had the votes to pass a privatization measure.
At the time, members of Local 194 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents toll collectors, said the two-year reprieve gave the toll collectors time to find other jobs within the agency, or outside.
Last year, however, Turnpike Authority officials appeared less enthusiastic in its push for privatization, but a request for companies to submit bids was issued. Those bids are due May 7.
The Turnpike Authority is asking for proposals to run manual and electronic toll collection services, as well as customer service operations for E-ZPass. The roads would not be privatized.