Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, 52, has been executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority since September 2010. The Queens, N.Y., native heads the North Jersey-based agency that has overseen the Garden State Parkway during a heavily criticized tree-clearing effort and the removal of the security fence on the Great Egg Harbor bridge. Hakim insists the agency has South Jersey’s best interests in mind.
Q: Our local legislators are pushing for a bill that would ensure there is South Jersey representation on the Turnpike Authority’s board. Why do you think it’s taken this long to see momentum in South Jersey representation? Do you think there’s been a cost to not requiring representation from the region to date?
A: In the past, we have had board members from South Jersey. I don’t think that the hometown of my board of commissioners dictates the agenda for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. I think that we are doing a tremendous amount of work in South Jersey right now between the work that we’re doing in Cape May County (and) the work that we’re doing in Atlantic County. That’s over $700 million worth of work. We obviously have major capital improvements under way and plan to continue to improve the infrastructure in South Jersey that we’re responsible for.
Q: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is studying the possibility of a takeover of Atlantic City International Airport. Some officials in our area are concerned that any movement in that area could renew discussions about the Turnpike Authority absorbing the South Jersey Transportation Authority. Are there discussions going on within the NJTA about that possibility?
A: Periodically we’ve all heard those discussions. The (state) commissioner of transportation, James Simpson, is the chairman of my board and of SJTA. The only new news that I’ve heard is the same that you’ve heard, which is that the Port Authority is commissioning a study of some sort to look into ... their relationship with the airport and the potential for that. Beyond that, there has been no other formal conversation that I’m aware of.
Q: The NJTA has been heavily criticized recently for some projects that have been implemented in South Jersey. The tree clearing on the Garden State Parkway last year was a major point of contention. First, the NJTA said it was being done for safety reasons, and later we learned it was related to the parkway widening. Why was the message about this project so garbled?
A: I think we got a bad rap on the tree clearing. ... Tree clearing is important for two reasons. The first is safety. The second is it does enable us to advance the widening work. In the years preceeding the tree clearing and the widening, we had, I think, over 40 tree-related fatalities. That’s a significant number. Of that 40, beween milepost 30 and, I’m going to say, 64 (were) eight of those fatalities. Eight lives were lost because of trees, cars running into trees. That is an inherently dangerous situation. I’m glad we advanced the tree clearing work because ... between 2011 and now, we’ve had zero fatalities in that same area related to trees. So again, tree clearing does save lives.
The great thing ... is it enabled us to advance the widening. We had a widening project that was stated. The first phase of the widening in the capital program was between (milepost) 63 to 80. We knew we wanted to go further south. We just had to figure out how to fund that. ... In early 2011, the governor was able to announce that we were funding the second phase of widening on the parkway to go further south. That’s great news. It adds another lane of travel in each direction. We currently have contractors working out there right now. So people can see the work that is going on and recognize that we’re advancing this important project in South Jersey.
Q: There was also the fencing issue with the Great Egg Harbor bridge. The fence cost $250,000 to install, only to be taken down at the request of the Governor’s Office. That was after we learned that the fence gate had been left open for weeks allowing access anyway. Does the decision by the Governor’s Office show that the fence was ineffective in the first place?
A: We worked a lot after hearing from the local community on the fence there. What I think of (when I think) about that project ... it was a bad project started with the best of intentions. That bridge is a major asset for us. It is a critical link for the community around it. It’s a critical link for evacuation. Securing that bridge is the right goal. What I think we ended up with is the best outcome, which is an agency that stood up and said, ‘Hey, this was not a good project. Let’s take it down. Let’s do the right thing (and) figure out a way to engineer the safety and security that we need in a less intrusive manner,’ which is exactly what ended up happening. Was it a difficult circumstance? Yes. Was the outcome better? Absolutely yes. At the end of the day, we are putting up a new bridge there, so we will get all of the safety and security improvements engineered into the new facility.
Q: The NJTA has seen harsh criticism from both residents and local leaders who say the agency is out of touch with South Jersey. Do you think any aspect of that criticism has been fair? What would you say to those people who think the NJTA doesn’t understand what South Jersey needs?
A: That’s a big question. We’re a public agency. We’re responsive to all of our toll payers. We’re responsive to the communities that we pass through with our roads. I don’t think that it’s fair to say that the turnpike has not been in touch with South Jersey. The second day ... I started this job, I was down meeting (in) Ocean View, down at milepost 18. I have met with the delegation at legislative District 9 (and) District 2. I think two weeks ago I was with (state) Sen. (Jim) Whelan and his office. I have met with the different constituencies and mayors. I was down at the Bass River Town Hall not too long ago. We are doing, as I mentioned earlier, a tremendous amount of capital improvements in South Jersey. As a result of that, when you do these big projects, we have a series of public hearings that we go through in the locality where the project is being held. So we probably have done over seven public hearings since I’ve ... been here ... about projects that we’re doing in Cape May County and Atlantic County.
Q: After decades of discussion it appears the removal of the traffic lights on the parkway in Cape May County is imminent. What other projects or initiatives are planned for South Jersey?
A: Let’s just focus on the interchanges at (exits) 9, 10 and 11. That is a tremendous boon for us and a tremendous boon for the local communities that are served in that area. The interchanges at 9, 10 and 11 with those dreaded traffic lights, again, it’s a safety issue. I’m pleased we’re going to be able to advance those projects. It took a long time to get through the environmental review process. We have a small portion of that project being funded with federal dollars. That triggered a whole level of federal review as well. I’m pleased to say that we’re on track. I’m hoping for a groundbreaking by the end of the year.
One of the important elements for our capital program, which I don’t think people talk a lot about, are our sign structures that are going up. ... We’re going to have eight new signs in Cape May County. We’re going to have nine new signs in Atlantic County. Those signs do a couple of very important things. First of all, they obviously provide real-time information for motorists. But they’re more than just signs. They’re actually what we call ITS data points — intelligent transportation systems data points. They include cameras. They include traffic detection devices. So we will be able to monitor traffic in a very real way at each of those locations. So every two and a half miles where you see that sign structure going up, our traffic operations center is receiving real-time information. That’s crucial for our ability to communicate with our motorists in real time.
You have to worry about not just clearing that accident. You have to worry about the last car In that queue because the last car in that queue may have another vehicle bearing down on it full-speed not realizing there’s traffic there. So these ITS data points are going to provide a very new and improved way for us to manage traffic and communicate with our motorists
Q: You’ve made great strides this year in cutting down on the number of toll violators. The SJTA recently scrapped immediate plans to move toward all-electronic tolling, and DOT Commissioner Simpson suggested the two authorities could look at a joint procurement in the future. How close is the NJTA to implementing all-electronic tolling, and what are the obstacles?
A: All-electronic tolling , what we referred to as AET, is still something we’re discussing. I hadn’t heard that actually about a joint procurement with South Jersey, but we talk all the time and look for opportunities like that.
The tolling industry right now, though, is actually a little more focused on what is referred to as national interoperability. What that means is that if you are an E-ZPass customer and you have an electronic toll tag in your vehicle, you currently obviously can run through tolls ... in the 14 states in the E-ZPass group. But what happens when you go to North Carolina? What happens when you go to Florida? National interoperability means that the toll agencies need to figure out how to communicate with one another so that a New Jersey electronic toll customer can run through a North Carolina electronic toll lane.
What happened recently, which focused the industry on national interoperability, is that the federal government passed their federal transportation bill. ... When that bill was passed, it included a small piece of legislation in there that mandated national interoperability for toll roads within four years. So that means we have to focus on how to do that. I’m personally spending a tremendous amount of time working with these other toll roads to figure out how are we going to do that. How are we going to communicate information across state lines, across customer service centers, so that a New Jersey motorist who is an E-ZPass customer can run through a different toll road?
Q: A committee was recently put together by the NJTA at the DOT commissioner’s request to study the high percentage of fatalities on the parkway involving young people. Can you explain in more detail how that committee is reviewing the data and what sorts of initiatives we might expect to see develop out of the committee’s work?
A: Our chairman, James Simpson, commissioner of transportation, said we have a problem with fatalities, and it seems to be focused on young drivers. So the first thing we’re doing is obviously forensically looking at all of our fatalities and making sure that we correctly identified the population that seems to be at risk. The second thing we’re doing is what we refer to as the three E’s. The three E’s of traffic safety are engineering, enforcement and education. Engineering we’ve got fairly well covered. When you look at our $7 billion capital program and the projects that are in there, they are all about safety. So I feel good about the engineering peace.
Enforcement, that’s our partnership with State Police and the Division of Highway Safety. Troop D that patrols the turnpike and the parkway, they’re very good partners for us, and we are constantly working together. This year they rolled out a new initiative where two days a month they have a full presence on the roads. Our sense is — and it’s proven out by fact — when the State Police presence is visible on the roads, speed goes down. Sixty-six percent of accidents are associated with speed — 66 percent. So as soon as you start to control that speed, and you introduce more lane discipline so people aren’t darting across lanes, everything gets safer on the road. That’s an important part of enforcement.
The last piece is education. It’s how are we going to roll out an education program? I think that’s what the commissioner is looking for. What can we do to step into an area we normally aren’t? When you think of the Turnpike Authority, you don’t think of us as rolling out a traffic safety education program. But I think that’s the next step for us. We have the first two E’s well covered — engineering and enforcement. The third is education, and that will be the emphasis for our program.
Q: At the beginning of this year, you raised tolls for the second time since 2008. Have you seen any decreases in traffic, and does the authority’s financial position indicate that there will be any more toll increases anytime soon?
A: We had implemented the second step of the previously approved two-phase toll increase. ... We had basically a 50 percent toll increase. Normally, on a toll road after a toll increase, you see diversion where motorists are choosing other roads to avoid paying a higher toll. We actually did a little bit better than our traffic engineer had anticipated. ... We thought diversions were going to be over 3 percent; they’re less than that. They’re about 2.6 percent. That’s perfectly normal for us. We have a very conservative financial plan. It does not include any new toll increases going forward. It does also include the money that we need to fund our capital program.
I started in September 2010. One of my first challenges was, ‘Hey, let’s bring our operating costs down $10 million.’ So our 2011 budget was $10 million lower. Our 2012 budget was flat. We did not increase the 2012 budget. We are building our 2013 budget right now. Guess what? It’s going to be flat again, and we will be an agency that has maintained the same operating budget for three years running while maintaining the same level of service our motorists expect.
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