WOODBRIDGE TOWNSHIP — Top political leaders Tuesday urged the operator of the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway to abandon its plan to privatize toll collector jobs on both roads.
They said the proposal will throw government employees out of work and has little chance of producing any cost savings.
The political opposition has put even more pressure on the New Jersey Turnpike Authority as it moves closer to making a decision on the controversial plan. Private companies wanting to take over toll collection for both highways have until May 7 to submit formal proposals. The earliest the authority could vote on the plan is at its May 28 board meeting.
Appearing at the authority’s meeting Tuesday, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and other lawmakers joined with state labor representatives to denounce the proposal. They insisted that toll collectors already have agreed to enough concessions and should not have to fear losing their jobs if a private company takes over.
“I think it’s moving in the wrong direction,” said Sweeney, a Democrat who is also a South Jersey labor leader.
Sweeney said the authority’s board should not seriously consider the proposal. He wants the board to kill the plan before it comes up for a formal vote.
“I think you should just scrap it and move on. End of discussion,” he said.
Board members did not reply to Sweeney’s remarks. State Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, who serves as board chairman, declined to comment other than to say he wants to review an analysis of the possible cost savings of privatizing the jobs before he makes up his mind.
“It all depends on what the numbers look like,” Simpson told reporters after the meeting.
However, Sweeney and other critics of the plan contended it will result in little or no savings for motorists or taxpayers. They claimed that a private operator may be more expensive, because management fees would be involved in a for-profit company taking control of toll collection.
Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the Senate majority leader, said other state services that have privatized have had a spotty record and did not always produce the promised savings.
Weinberg argued that toll collectors have sacrificed enough, accepting large pay cuts and other concessions in their last contract to keep their jobs. She said their average salaries were chopped from $65,000 to $49,500.
“Our toll collectors have repeatedly made concessions under the threat of privatization,” Weinberg said.
Altogether, the toll collectors agreed to about $30 million in concessions as part of a 2011 agreement to forestall privatization at that time. Union leaders fear that privatization will lead to more wage cuts and job losses in an already shrinking workforce.
“Each day that goes by brings them closer to losing their jobs,” said Kevin McCarthy, president of Local 194 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, the union representing turnpike toll collectors.
Once a ubiquitous part of highway operations nationwide, toll takers have been disappearing in recent years as more motorists switch to the automated E-ZPass fare-collection system. E-ZPass accounts for about 80 percent of the toll-paying traffic on both the parkway and turnpike.
According to the turnpike authority’s most recent figures, there are 200 toll collectors on the turnpike and 136 on the parkway. The total work force for collectors on both roads once numbered about 1,000. As more full-time collectors retire, they are being replaced by part-timers earning $12 per hour.
Private toll collection already is in place on New Jersey’s other major toll road, the Atlantic City Expressway. The South Jersey Transportation Authority, the expressway’s operator, approved a $3.7 million contract last year to have a private company oversee its toll system through November 2014. The expressway expects to save about $7.5 million, because it has been relieved of the cost of salaries and benefits for the toll collectors.
Peter Busacca, president of the Hudson County Central Labor Council, claimed the expressway deal is an example of how government workers have been hurt by privatization. He said the expressway toll collectors lost vacation leave, sick time, overtime and family medical coverage when they were shifted to a private employer.
“If it hasn’t worked down there, what makes them think it will work here?” Busacca asked, comparing the expressway with the turnpike and parkway.
After the lawmakers and union representatives addressed the turnpike authority’s board, a few toll collectors described their fear of losing their jobs if a private company takes charge.
“I’m begging you not to privatize,” Eric Wallace, a turnpike toll collector at Interchange 1 in Carneys Point, Salem County, told the board members.
Nicholas Pappas, who collects tolls at the turnpike’s Exit 9 in New Brunswick, Middlesex County, said he suffered severe financial hardship after he was forced to accept a salary cut. He questioned whether it was worth sticking it out for 20 years as a toll taker.
“I came to work every day. I sucked it up and took one for the team,” Pappas said. “The question now: Was I stupid to put my faith in the turnpike and be a good employee, or are you going to privatize these jobs and effectively say, ‘Thanks for 20 years, but we’re going to replace you with a private company?’’’
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