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New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti fired back at critics April 2 who said the agency shouldn’t have held hearings on a proposal toll increase and $500 million capital plan on the Atlantic City Expressway during the coronavirus crisis.
The commissioner departed from her usual remarks at the opening of a third and final public hearing that was being livestreamed the night of April 2.
“We don’t take lightly the emergent nature of COVID-19,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “Moving forward with these hearings is not meant to be tone-deaf or to limit participation of the public.”
Seven state legislators and U.S. Rep Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) questioned why the hearings were held as the coronavirus outbreak peaks and called on Gov. Phil Murphy to postpone the hearings until after the health crisis is over.
State Senate Majority leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, also questioned the timing in an NJ.com editorial, in which she wrote, “it would seem that these hearings should not take place in this manner at this troubled time.”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti said she believed the livestream call-in format of the Expressway toll hearings gave more people the opportunity to participate than the number who would have attended an in-person hearing.
Although earlier toll increase hearings for the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway held in mid-March, those didn’t offer comment by phone capability. The hearing videos received 400 hits, which was a record for participation in her 30 years in transportation, she said.
“We are going to church by video, having court by video and conduct meetings by video,” she said. “If anything … the new normal, out of COVID-19, may be virtual participation and limiting large public gatherings.”
The mail and email public comment period ends at 5 p.m. April 3, for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s toll increase and $24 billion capital plan. The email comment period on the South Jersey Turnpike Authority’s toll increase and $500 million capital plan ends on April 20.
Gutierrez-Scaccetti reiterated earlier comments that the $500 million capital plan would serve as an economic stimulus once the coronavirus crisis has abated.
While critics argue the process can be put on hold, she said, “I can promise you, as sure as I’m sitting in this seat that those that same individuals” will criticize the toll agencies for not getting important construction jobs on the street fast enough.
“When we flatten the curve (of coronavirus growth), attention will turn to strengthening the economy, we’ll be able to use these investments,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
While some commenters suggested waiting for a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that was mentioned by President Donald Trump this week, toll agencies might not be included in that package, she said.
Both toll agencies are supported by toll revenue and neither receive funding form the state gas tax, she said.
Neither the Expressway or Parkway and Turnpike capital plans can move forward until the hearing and public comment period are over, she said.
“This is not an easy time, government must go on,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
Her comments didn’t resonate with the hearing’s first caller who said she was “astounded” at officials “arrogance.”
“I’m outraged you’re trying to rush through this massive increase when people in New Jersey and the world are sick scared and dying,” said Carolyn Rhodes of Manchester. “I think it is so uncaring and I am really suspicious of the timing. People aren’t following this money grab. This has to be put on hold.”
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