Corzine faces tough questions on toll hike plan in Mercer County

Gov. Jon Corzine faced a mixed reception during his town hall meeting today in Mercer County as skeptical residents tough questions about his plan to fix state finances by raising highway tolls.

The crowd of more than 500 at Hightstown High School pressed Corzine on whether he is cutting the budget enough and whether sharp toll increases on major highways would flood local roads with truck traffic.

But Corzine, who was visiting a county heavy with Democrats and state workers, also received several rounds of applause as he pleaded with the public to realize that the state faces such grave fiscal problems that drastic solutions are necessary.

“We have a serious financial issues in this state. Those are clear and present,” he said. “We must take action, some kind of action.”

Support for the plan has been eroding in the Legislature, and Corzine has encountered boisterous opposition during two recent town hall meetings in the Republican-leaning counties of Ocean and Monmouth.

Some of that dissent was evident at today’s meeting.

Ken Enderle, 55, a retired carpenter from Hamilton Township who tends to vote Republican, stood outside the high school before the 2 p.m. meeting holding a sign that read: “It’s the spending stupid.”

“The problem is the more taxes they get, the more they spend,” Enderle said. “Selling an asset doesn’t make sense. It’s like selling your house to pay for groceries.”

Enderly remained skeptical when told the governor planned to recommend a budget Feb. 26 that will cut more than $2 billion.

“Actions speak louder than words. We’ll see,” he said.

On Sunday, Corzine heads to East Brunswick High School in Middlesex County, a heavily Democratic area traversed by both the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. On Monday, he’ll be at Rowan University in Glassboro, Gloucester County. Sunday’s meeting runs from 2-4 p.m.; Monday’s will be held from 7-9 p.m.

The governor’s office asks that anyone wishing to speak at any of the meetings sign up through its Web site, or by calling the RSVP numbers listed on the site.

Corzine, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, is holding the sessions to raise support for his plan, which would boost tolls up to eightfold within 14 years to allow a new quasi-public agency to borrow up to $38 million. The proceeds from the borrowing would be used to pay off at least half of the state’s $32 billion debt while pumping a large infusion into the ailing Transportation Trust Fund.

The Turnpike, Parkway, Atlantic City Expressway and Route 440 would be affected.

Corzine has released a proposed bill that would authorize the new borrowing and revamp oversight of the toll roads.

To measure the toll plan’s impact on your commute, see our toll calculator – covering every exit on the Turnpike and Parkway – at New Jersey by the Numbers.

More Star-Ledger coverage:

– Jerseyans rally against Corzine plan.

– Republicans, environmental groups oppose toll plan.

Turnpike data show flaws in toll plan

Governor recruits an old foe as fiscal plan pitchman

Questions and answers on how it all would work

Background information on asset monetization plan

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