WOODBRIDGE — Tatiana Marte, who earns $45,000 annually as a New Jersey Turnpike toll collector, fears she will soon lose the job that she has held for the past 12 years.
Marte is one of about 335 toll takers on the turnpike and Garden State Parkway who may be threatened by plans by the highways’ operating agency, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, to privatize toll collections on both roads.
The controversial proposal was debated Tuesday, when toll collectors, union representatives and two New Jersey lawmakers urged the Turnpike Authority’s board of commissioners to back away from the plan.
The board may vote on the proposal at its April 29 meeting. New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, who also serves as chairman of the turnpike authority, said no final decisions have been made.
“No, I haven’t made up my mind,” Simpson told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting.
The turnpike authority has solicited bids for a private company to oversee toll collection, including the human toll takers and the automated E-ZPass fare system. The authority believes it may save millions by making the switch to a private company. The same issue was debated in 2011, but privatization was avoided then when the unions agreed to accept salary cuts and other concessions amounting to about $30 million.
Marte, 34, of West New York, Hudson County, said her salary was cut from $55,000 to $45,000 as part of the 2011 concessions. Afterward, she took a part-time job as a postal clerk to supplement her income, saying she could not afford to support her 8-year-old daughter and elderly parents solely on her toll collector pay.
“We’re not ready for another cut,” Marte told the turnpike authority’s board members while arguing against privatization.
Opponents of the plan believe it will force the toll collectors into lower-paying jobs or throw them out of work altogether. Union representatives contended that the toll collectors have already sacrificed enough.
“Can you imagine the stress and anxiety they’re feeling?” said Kevin McCarthy, president of Local 194 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents the turnpike’s toll collectors.
Unions have been seeking political support to kill the privatization plan. The Hudson and Essex County freeholder boards, as well as local governments in Jersey City, Bayonne and Kearny, have all passed resolutions opposing privatization, McCarthy said.
Some of the unions’ political backers include North Jersey Democrats in Congress and the state Legislature. New Jersey Democratic Congressmen Frank Pallone, Rush Holt and Donald Payne Jr. all served as “honorary campaign chairs” for a recent fundraiser for the toll collectors.
State Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, Passaic, and state Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, D-Bergen, appeared at the turnpike authority meeting Tuesday to support the toll collectors. Gordon doubted that the privatization plan would save much money, while Johnson asserted that the authority simply wants to get rid of the toll takers.
“Now, the board is trying to fire them all,” Johnson said. “They deserve better treatment than that.”
The board members insisted they would weigh the proposal carefully before voting.
“We’re taking the moral high ground on this issue,” Commissioner Jan Walden said.
“I think we’re going to make the right decisions for everyone here,” Commissioner Raymond Pocino added.
McCarthy challenged the commissioners to experience the rigors of being a toll collector first hand by performing the job for at least one day. Commissioner Michael DuPont said publicly he is willing to do just that, while Simpson told reporters after the meeting that he would also try working in a toll booth.
“You put me in a toll booth, I’ll serve,” DuPont said during the meeting. “You tell me the time, you tell me the place and I’ll represent this board.”
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