The years haven’t made Atlantic City government’s attempt to get its hands on highway tolls more sensible, possible or even desirable. Just more ridiculous.
For five years, city government has sought to have the toll doubled at the Atlantic City Expressway toll booth heading into the resort — and have the extra money given to city government. For five years, the proposal has been rejected and discredited. It should have gone away.
Not in Atlantic City. Recently Council President Marty Small Sr. again proposed doubling the toll to $1.50 and handing the money over to the city. Stand and deliver, travelers.
City Council first proposed the toll doubling in 2014, saying it needed more revenue. That’s one diagnosis of a city that’s nearly bankrupt. The accurate one is that city officials needed to spend their very substantial revenue from casinos, businesses and residents responsibly and wisely. More revenue would worsen, not help cure, their spending problem.
The proposal went nowhere. Then last year, council asked the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates and maintains the expressway, to double the toll and give them the money, which the year before would have been about $14 million.
State Sen. Chris Brown urged the authority to reject the proposal. He said the toll increase would be “another unfair burden on those trying to make ends meet. … Instead of raising tolls, we should try to find ways to lower them.”
The authority said council’s proposal wasn’t possible, since toll revenue is not for any purpose other than operating and maintaining the Atlantic City Expressway.
At least Mayor Frank Gilliam, who hadn’t been informed of council’s toll-grab effort, said he didn’t support it.
But now Gilliam likes the idea. He and Small have resurrected the proposal in response to city tax bills jumping this year after casino tax appeal repayments to the city ended.
Small continues to say the toll money would only be used to reduce local taxes. But nothing would stop city officials from spending more and not lowering taxes at all, maybe raising them higher still.
Government budgets at all levels in some respects are money-laundering operations adept at finding ways around any spending restriction, which is why pledges of tax reduction are never fully realized and often not at all.
The most worrisome thing is that Atlantic City officials act as if they have no awareness of their responsibility for the success of the tourism resort they represent. They should be looking for ways to make the city more appealing to visitors, not jacking up tolls on them to cover their excessive spending.
The same year that officials started their quest for toll money, a sports bar in the city took the opposite and smart approach — it paid the SJTA to give Memorial Day weekend drivers free passage for an hour through the expressway’s main toll plaza in Egg Harbor Township.
Waiving the $3 toll was a brilliant gesture, an inexpensive way to say “thank you for visiting, we appreciate your business.”
The city could use officials who give a thought to the visitors who are the backbone of its economy.