New Jersey moving to privatize road-toll collections

New Jersey is moving to replace public toll collectors with private collectors on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway.

The state plans to seek bids by December from private operators to collect highway tolls, state Transportation Commissioner James Simpson said Tuesday.

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A busy stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, one of two roads where change is eyed. The other is the Garden State Parkway.

The state currently employs 309 full-time collectors on the turnpike and 174 on the parkway, according to turnpike spokesman Tom Feeney. The top salary for turnpike collectors is $65,760 a year, while parkway collectors get $64,573, he said.

In another move to save money, turnpike commissioners voted Tuesday to eliminate free passage for toll-road employees who commute to work on the two pay roads, effective Jan. 1. The toll roads have about 1,900 employees.

The commissioners also voted to do away with other perquisites for the highways' 132 nonunion workers, including longevity pay, separation bonuses, and payouts for unused vacation and sick days.

On the state's other pay road, the Atlantic City Expressway, human collectors are expected to be replaced with all-electronic toll collection by Memorial Day, officials said last month.

The elimination and outsourcing of toll collecting by humans is part of a broad effort by the Christie administration to cut costs on the pay roads.

The state could save as much as $43 million a year by allowing companies to collect tolls, according to a report by a Christie task force in July.

And Simpson, who also chairs the Turnpike Authority, said Tuesday that other tasks, such as guard-rail repair and highway maintenance, also were being considered for privatization.

Fran Ehret, president of International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers Local 194, called the outsourcing plan "terrible." The union represents about 1,200 turnpike workers, including collectors, maintenance workers, technicians, and office employees.

"We have a lot of middle-class, hardworking employees here," Ehret said. "When so many people are out of work, the idea of putting more people out of jobs is horrible. We're very disappointed that they're trying to do this."

Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, also criticized the effort.

"New Jersey has been down the privatization road in the past, and it has been a troubling one, filled with no-bid contracts for the politically connected, an increase in costs to taxpayers, a lack of accountability to government agencies, and squandering of resources," Wowkanech said.

Many turnpike workers attended Tuesday's meeting of the turnpike commissioners in Woodbridge to protest the plans.

Privately hired toll collectors are paid much less than unionized collectors. For example, weekend and holiday toll collectors at Delaware River Port Authority bridges - hired through contractor PRWT Services Inc. - are paid $10 an hour, with no benefits.

The DRPA's union collectors, who do the work on weekdays, earn $46,176 a year, more than double the private wage.

The vote to eliminate free passage for commuting employees followed similar moves at agencies such as the DRPA. Free E-ZPass transponders for employees of the turnpike and Garden State Parkway cost the agency about $430,000 a year in lost tolls, auditors said earlier this month.

The other actions by the turnpike commissioners Tuesday included elimination of future "longevity" pay increases for veteran nonunion employees. Those increases had been 4 percent for employees with 10 years on the job, 6 percent for workers employed 15 years, and 7 percent for those with 30 years on the job.

The commissioners also voted to eliminate other perks for nonunion workers, including annual payments for unused sick or vacation days and "separation bonuses" that paid about $600 for each year of employment to retiring employees with at least 10 years of service. Those changes will take effect Nov. 15.

Similar changes to union employees' contracts will be sought as those contracts expire next year, Simpson said.

An audit of the toll roads released this month said the Turnpike Authority squandered tens of millions of dollars on bonuses, sick-leave and vacation payouts, free rides for employees, a poorly managed health-care plan, and over-payments to outside lawyers.

Ehret said her union, the largest of 10 that represent turnpike workers, had tried without success to meet with Christie to discuss his efforts to cut jobs and expenses on the toll roads.

"We're anxious to work this out if we can," she said Tuesday.


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