Now that Gov. Jon Corzine's plan to "monetize" the New Jersey Turnpike to pay down state debt has been abandoned, the state still faces the need to come up with $2 billion to fund a long-needed widening of 35 miles of the Turnpike's central section. Two senior legislative leaders have come up with an innovative proposal: let the private sector finance the expansion via premium tolls it could charge if the new lanes became premium lanes, either for congestion-relief (express toll lanes) or specialized truck-only toll (TOT) lanes. As Peter Samuel points out in a recent article, there is a strong case for the TOT lanes alternative.
First, the planned widening would follow the same lane configuration that already exists north of that 35-mile section: a so-called dual-dual configuration in which there are two separate three-lane sections northbound and the same thing southbound (3/3/3/3). Currently, the inner three lanes each direction are cars-only, with mixed traffic in the outer lanes. But under a TOT lanes alternative, trucks (and buses) could be required to use the inner lanes, which would be built strong enough to handle the heavy weights and axle loadings. The outer lanes, if reserved for light vehicles (cars, SUVs, pickup trucks), could easily be re-striped to 11 feet instead of the current 12 feet, for a resulting configuration of 4/3/3/4.
What might make this plan appealing to truckers? As Samuel, co-author Jose Holguin-Veras, and I argued in our 2002 toll truck lanes study, such truck lanes could offer not merely time savings and trip-time reliability but also the ability to operate turnpike doubles and short triples–bigger rigs now illegal in New Jersey (but operating routinely on the Indiana Tollway, Ohio Turnpike, New York Thruway, and Florida Turnpike). The combined productivity gains from higher payloads and time savings would be worth paying premium tolls to obtain. Trucks already pay tolls to get mediocre services on the New Jersey Turnpike, constituting about 12% of the traffic volume and 34% of toll revenue.
Politically speaking, the two legislators promoting the idea are both Democrats–Richard Cody (the state senate president) and Ray Lesniak (chairman of the senate economic growth committee), as is Gov. Corzine. The strongest congressional opponent of liberalizing federal truck size and weight limits is probably Sen. Frank Lautenberg, (D, NJ). His concern has always been the safety implications of mixing longer combination vehicles (LCVs) like turnpike doubles with automobiles. That concern does not exist with completely separated truck-only lanes.
So the potential is there for America's first long-haul truck-only toll lanes. It will be interesting to see whether New Jersey Democrats can seize the opportunity.