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


Demonstrators condemn toll-hike proposal at protest organized by talk-radio station

TRENTON — Pigs flew over the Statehouse Friday.

Rubber-balloon pigs, that is. They were pink and wore smiles.

More than 700 chanting, placard-waving demonstrators — taking their cue from a line in Gov. Corzine’s State of the State speech — rallied in front of the Statehouse to protest Corzine’s 75- or 99-year plan to increase road tolls to halve the state debt and bankroll transportation projects.

At one point, Katherine Koridek — age 11 — of Sterling was picked up over the podium, where the crowd roared that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren could be paying for Corzine’s plan.

The governor had said “pigs will fly over the Statehouse” before spending cuts and tax increases rescue the state’s financial situation.

Well, they did take flight as scores of pink “pig” balloons rose into the cloud-pocked sky above cheers of “We’re not going to take it!” and the pulsing rock music provided by New Jersey 101.5 FM radio, which organized the rally under the banner of the Flying Pigs Coalition.

Some protesters chanted. Some waved signs. Some oinked. Many took cell-phone photos. Some even danced as the music — including Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” — poured onto West State Street from elevated speakers.

While TV helicopters hovered overhead, some of the balloon pigs drifted toward the Delaware River. Others got caught in trees, moving Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, to ask if the gimmick was harmful to the environment.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr., R-Union, said the Corzine toll plan looks doomed but is not yet dead.

“They are just spending addicts, and they are looking for another fix,” said demonstrator Bruce Christiansen of Springfield in Burlington County.

Wall resident Dominick Ignoscia said, “The so-called silent majority has not become so silent any more. People are just fed up. Enough is enough.”

He added later that he believed voters will deny Corzine a second term, should he run.

Corzine spokesman Jim Gardner said the governor was not in the Statehouse at the time of the rally.

“Gov. Corzine today sat down with his Cabinet to discuss responsible, albeit painful, cuts that will reduce spending by up to $2.5 billion in the upcoming state budget. The governor is committed to continuing to travel the state to present his proposal and listen to the people,” Gardner said.

State Police Capt. Al Della Fave said between 700 and 800 people turned out or passed by on the sidewalk.

One sign said, “Duh — Cut Spending, Governor Financial Genius.” Others proclaimed “Oink” or “No New Tolls.”

Assemblyman Richard Merkt, R-Morris, said raising tolls on the Garden State Parkway, Atlantic City Expressway and the New Jersey Turnpike and putting them on Route 440 in Middlesex County is just a start and that Corzine will later try to slap tolls on some of the now-free interstates.

“He’ll do it on 80, on 78, on 287. Mark my words,” Merkt said. “His proposals would literally steal from future generations.” He noted that Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is seeking to put tolls on the Keystone State’s stretch of I-80.

“I stand with you, the majority of the people of New Jersey,” Assemblywoman Marcia Karrow, R-Hunterdon, shouted to the throng.

“No new taxes,” shouted Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Somerset, labeling the tolls as taxes.

Corzine is trying to convince voters he should create a new state agency to oversee the toll roads, issuing bonds to create $38 billion to cut the state debt by 50 percent and also to pay for transportation work for 75 years.

To repay the bonds, Corzine says New Jersey can raise tolls 50 percent in the years 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. Those boosts also would include inflation adjustments. Then, after 2022, tolls would go up every four years until 2085, reflecting inflation.

While some in the crowd dressed as pigs, Charles Applegate of Browns Mills mounted his motorcycle with a pig attached to the top of his helmet. It had wings that flapped up and down, by battery power, as he rode down West State Street.

Tom Baldwin:

Concede defeat of toll hike plan

It’s working…

The wheels are coming off Gov. Corzine’s monetization bus. 

His toll-hike plan has been booed in every corner of the state.

Polls show overwhelming public opposition to it.

Hundreds of people turned out at the Statehouse Friday to protest it.

A day earlier, every Republican in the Legislature pledged not to support it. And with three Democratic senators joining their GOP counterparts in opposition to the plan, just one more declaration of nonsupport would deny Corzine the 21 votes he needs to move ahead with it in the Senate.

It’s time for Corzine to concede. It’s time for him to say he will defer, for once, to the will of the people and scrap the plan. If he doesn’t, the Democratic senators from Mercer and Middlesex counties — the site of Corzine town hall meetings this weekend — should kill the plan for him by announcing they will not support it.

It would take only Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, stepping to the microphone at Corzine’s Hightstown meeting today to say she opposes it to put the final nail in the coffin. Or the same pronouncement by Barbara Buono, Joseph Vitale or Bob Smith at the East Brunswick meeting Sunday.

If Corzine or his advisers had any skill at reading tea leaves, they would have understood long ago that the plan is doomed. Over the past 10 days, 2,000 people turned out in Toms River to roundly reject it, followed by a crowd of 1,000 in Marlboro Monday night and a turnout of 770 in Cape May County Thursday night. They all sent Corzine the same message: the plan is unfair, unwise and unnecessary. The chants “Cut spending, cut spending, cut spending” must be ringing in his ears.

Corzine, who has staked his governorship on the plan, needs to accept that it will not happen. He needs to do what we and others have long recommended — stop wasting time, money and energy on monetization. Focus instead of ways to bring out-of-control spending — at every level of government — under control. Concede defeat now, before more precious time is wasted.