Polls find most drivers oppose leasing roads

A stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike in Cherry Hill. The Atlantic City Expressway and Garden State Parkway would also be leased under a proposal to raise money for transportation projects.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey leaders appear to have a tough road ahead as they push proposals to lease the states' turnpikes.

Recent polls, letters to lawmakers, and e-chatter all indicate significant public skepticism about plans to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike, New Jersey Turnpike, the Atlantic City Expressway and Garden State Parkway.

Polls sponsored by AAA found little support for the idea. The motorists' association opposes the toll-road leases.

In the five-county Southeastern Pennsylvania area, 70 percent of licensed drivers polled by AAA Mid-Atlantic said they opposed selling public roads to private companies to raise transportation money. Twenty percent were in favor. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 6.2 percentage points.

A poll by the AAA Pennsylvania Federation asked Pennsylvania drivers to rate support for leasing interstate highways to raise money for maintenance of highways and bridges. The poll found 40 percent "strongly oppose" and 13 percent "strongly support." That poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.9 percentage points.

Asked to rate various options for funding transportation services, fewer than 15 percent of respondents favored leasing existing roads or increasing gasoline taxes, fewer than 10 percent favored raising other taxes, fewer than 20 percent favored charging tolls on new and existing roads or establishing a tax based on miles driven, and 40 percent favored none of those options.

A poll conducted by AAA Clubs of New Jersey found 56 percent of motorists opposed to putting toll roads into private hands.

"Even though there is clear initial opposition, it's worth noting that about a quarter of those surveyed - 24 percent - remain undecided," said Joel L. Vittori, chief executive officer of AAA South Jersey and chairman of the state's Council of AAA Clubs.

At the Pennsylvania State Senate Transportation Committee, "we haven't received a single letter saying, 'Go for it,' " executive director Craig Shuey said. He said a "dozen or two" letter writers had opposed the idea.

But he cautioned, "It's very hard to gauge from the letters you get because you never hear from the positive side."

A large majority of the 58 people who responded by e-mail to an Inquirer article on Friday about Gov. Rendell's proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike expressed negative sentiments.

Rendell, who made a statewide swing last week to promote his plan, said he would send legislation to the state legislature in several weeks. A bill to authorize leasing the turnpike and other public assets was introduced last week in the Pennsylvania House, cosponsored by 44 lawmakers. In New Jersey, State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union) has sponsored a bill to permit the leasing of the toll roads there.

Estimates of the value of the Pennsylvania Turnpike range from $2 billion to $30 billion; Rendell estimated a $12 billion lease could generate $965 million a year for highway and bridge repairs. In New Jersey, estimates range from $12 billion to $38 billion or more for the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway.

Pennsylvania is keeping secret the 48 "expressions of interest" it has received from firms that want to lease the turnpike. Citing possible proprietary information, the Department of Transportation has rejected requests from legislative leaders for copies of the submissions, which have come from New York investment banks, the former employers of both Rendell and Gov. Corzine, Philadelphia law firms, construction giants, international developers, and a prominent think tank.

The administration's unwillingness to divulge the contents of the submissions has apparently fed skepticism.

"It's difficult to accept that we should act immediately on this if they won't give us the information," Shuey said. "We're trying to be in a position to make informed decisions."

Last week, Pennsylvania State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said, "Nothing's moving until we get that information." Evans, together with House Transportation Committee chairman Rep. Joseph Markosek (D., Allegheny), asked last month for copies of the "expressions of interest." Transportation Secretary Allen D. Biehler denied their request.

"Our position is that the expression of interest documents are not considered public records and we are not required to produce them," PennDot spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick wrote in an e-mail. "Since some of the documents may contain proprietary information, we chose not to release the information."

Catherine L. Rossi, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said in a statement, "Where public-private partnerships on roads have been done well, the process has been public and the public has been involved. But where closed-door deals are made or inadequate protections are put in place for both the state and for motorists, these partnerships have failed miserably. The devil is in the details of the contract."


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.