More traffic drives up N.J. Turnpike earnings

NJ.com- NJ Turnpike Authority revenues beat projections in 2015, despite a record-breaking winter which required large amounts of salt and manpower to clear away snow and ice and slightly lower traffic to Atlantic City.

It was the fourth year in a row that we hit the numbers," said Donna Manuelli, chief financial officer for the authority, which also runs the Garden State Parkway.

Total revenues for 2015 were $1.722 billion, which was $10.2 million above projections of $1.711 billion. Officials said revenue from tolls, E-Z Pass fees and concessions all exceeded predictions and offset income investments which performed $4.33 million lower than projections.

Of those revenues, $1.523 billion was earned from toll revenues, which was better than revenue projections of $1.514 billion for 2015.

Officials said no toll increase would be necessary this year.

Turnpike officials also credited the Turnpike widening project between exits 6 and 9 for the increase in revenues.

"The story was toll revenues were slightly more, the (turnpike) widening had a big effect, Manuelli said.

The $2.5 billion project to widen the turnpike between exit 6 and 9 was completed in October 2014, making 2015 the first full year the authority received revenue from more truck traffic on the expanded highway.

"What's proven to be positive is the Turnpike widening. It's been successful in keeping trucks on the roadway," said John O'Hern chief operating officer for the authority. Before the widening, some trucks would divert on to state highways to avoid the bottleneck at Exit 8A where the car and truck lanes merged.

Motorists such as Jeanette DeMartini of Woodbridge agreed that the money spent to widen the turnpike has improved traffic flow. But she said she's concerned about crashes fatal truck crashes on the Turnpike last year.

DeMartini said she's also seen the adverse effects of higher tolls in more trucks detouring through her town to beat the toll.

"One very bad part of the Turnpike increase in tolls, is the truck traffic on Route 514 (Woodbridge's Main Street) from Carteret to Edison," she said. "The trucks save a little money going south by not jumping on in Carteret, however Route 514 is in bad shape, beat up by hundreds of trucks each day."

Other factors that boosted revenue were lower gas prices and the overall better state of the economy, Manuelli said. Traffic was up by 6.2 percent on the Turnpike and 2.4 percent on the Parkway last year, she said. Toll revenues increased by 6.6 percent on the Turnpike and 2.4 percent on the Parkway.

While traffic to Atlantic City is down on the Parkway, Manuelli said it is not as significant as officials thought it would be.

"The summer numbers were very good," she said. "We don't see it (Atlantic City) as an impact."

Since 2009, Atlantic City Expressway traffic has steadily declined, with the sharpest 12.7 percent reduction in traffic occurring that year. Traffic volume dropped from 58.4 million to 54.9 million between 2010 and 2009, according to the South Jersey Transportation Authority's 2014 annual report.

Offsetting that is that the Parkway functions primarily as a commuter highway, said Joe Mrozek, authority executive director.

"The Parkway is an internal, New Jersey commuter road," Mrozek said and it is not as dependent on seasonal traffic as highways in other states.

What did effect the authority's budget was the $46 million spent on snow and ice removal during the winter of 2015. Officials amended the operating budget by $24 million in August to cover the additional cost.

At least one motorist said they thought they should be getting more for their toll money, especially since the northbound Pulaski Skyway is shut down, leaving the Turnpike Hudson County extension as one of few commuting options.

"I do not feel I am getting my money's worth at all, when they take away the only free route (Pulaski Skyway) into Jersey City, and don't offer a discount on the tolls or keep up with the maintenance," said Joe DiRienzo, of Berkeley Heights, who drives the Turnpike daily.

So what's the outlook for 2016? Authority officials look to traffic consultant CDM Smith for those forecasts, which are updated during the year.

"It goes to the inelastic nature of traffic," O'Hern said. "We expect moderate growth for 2016, if the economy holds up and gas prices hold. We'll have a good summer and a good year."

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