The Star-Ledger

Toll Plan Fuels Chamber's Train Of Thought

The Star-Ledger — Friday, February 1, 2008

The annual New Jersey Chamber of Commerce ride to Washington might as well have been renamed the "Toll Train."

The main topic of conversation on the annual rail pilgrimage by New Jersey's movers and shakers was Gov. Jon Corzine's proposal – and 21-county tour to sell it to the public – to restructure the state's finances by dramatically raising highway tolls.

So while Corzine might have been the last to board, he was the most prominent figure on an Amtrak train that left Newark yesterday morning.

While governors don't always go along on the train ride, Corzine and his top aides took to the rails this year in gratitude to the Chamber's leadership for endorsing his controversial plan early this week.

Corzine told reporters he was "grateful for the Chamber's endorsement," because its members understand much of the state's budget is already committed to contractually approved salaries and benefits.

"Business people understand you can't walk away from contracts," he said. "If you can't trust the legal contracts with the state, why would you ever want to do business here?"

Corzine began the day with a speech at a pre-ride breakfast in Newark, where he briefly mentioned his fiscal plans while serving up some self-deprecating humor.

"I wanted to take this opportunity to take the train to Philadelphia so I didn't have to pay the tolls on the way down," Corzine said to a roomful of laughs at the Gateway Hilton.

Dubbed the "Walk to Washington" because riders spend their time moving about the train cars, the trip is a 71-year-old tradition. Each year, the Chamber charters an 18-car Amtrak train and fills it with a who's who of leaders in business, education and, of course, politics, for a day of mixing, mingling and a drink or two. The trek was capped off in Washington with a dinner honoring the state's congressional delegation, followed by an all-night series of parties sponsored by businesses and trade groups.

Even though he got a mixed reception at the dinner – with about half of the 1,600 in attendance standing and the others barely applauding – Corzine continued to poke fun at the toll plan.

"You all paid $275 for that short train trip," he said. " It could cost you that in tolls next time."

He also joked that toll hikes were necessary because other means of raising money just won't work.

"Frankly, we can only raise so much by forcing Steve Lonegan to put up bail," he said in joking reference to the outspoken critic of the plan who was arrested outside one of Corzine's public meetings in Cape May last week. The charges were dropped.

Critics contend the trip gives monied lobbyists unfair access to those who run government, while the officials who participate say it's simply a chance to talk face to face with business leaders. Yesterday, New Jersey Citizen Action called on train riders to support a law to provide permanent public financing for legislative campaigns to help remove special interest money from politics. The state experimented with a "clean elections" plan in last fall's legislative races.

New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Chairman William Marino used his banquet speech to offer a detailed explanation for his organization's controversial decision to endorse Corzine's proposal.

"The Chamber has always acknowledged that one of the most critical components of a healthy and vibrant economy is a high-quality transportation network that is continually maintained and upgraded," said Marino, the president and CEO of Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield. "A system that is able to efficiently move people and products throughout our state and region is obviously vital.

"New Jersey's constant state of fiscal crisis hinders the allocation of necessary resources to address this growing problem," he said. "As a result, there is always a looming transportation funding crisis – and a temporary Band-Aid applied to get us through the next few years. The state Chamber board applauds the governor for putting forth a bold and aggressive plan."

Along the rails, Corzine's fiscal plan and the ever-changing presidential race dominated conversations. The toll plan and politics converged at one point when Corzine, sitting comfortably in a club car, was greeted by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Anne Evans Estabrook, a former Chamber chairwoman, who has come out against the toll plan.

"We agreed to disagree," Estabrook said after her very brief exchange with the Democratic governor.

Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Morris) said he and several other Republicans refused to ride the train because of the Chamber's endorsement of the toll plan.

Others chatting up Corzine asked the governor to support a range of organizations and projects, including Boys and Girls clubs, the Newark Museum and the annual Walk for a Cure for breast cancer research.

The focus, though, remained on Corzine's plan, which would raise tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway and use the revenue produced to pay down state debt and fund transportation improvements.

"I don't hear the rank-and-file members of the business community saying anything positive about the plan," said state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth). "The only people who seem to be supporting it are people with ties to state government."

Staff writer Deborah Howlett contributed to this report.

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