New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy blocks toll increases after blessing them

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Under political pressure, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a toll increase Thursday, just two days after his administration approved it, prompting legislative leaders in his own party to cry foul.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority on Tuesday approved a budget that included a 3 percent toll increase for drivers on the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway.

On Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Senate President Nick Scutari, who have both tried to make affordability an issue their Democrats can win on, urged Murphy to veto the idea.

The governor, also a Democrat, said that after considering the issue, he agreed the increases didn’t make sense.

“I am not satisfied with the justification provided for the toll increases reflected in the budget and need more information for why the board is taking this step,” Murphy said on social media Thursday afternoon.

He said he would halt the increases by vetoing the minutes of the Turnpike Authority’s board meeting. New Jersey governors can generally block state agencies’ actions by rejecting the minutes of the meeting where those actions were taken.

The increases don't take effect until Jan. 1, but the vote immediately handed a talking point to Republicans, who have accused Democrats of making the state unaffordable.

Though the Murphy administration had telegraphed the increases months ago, the timing of the Turnpike Authority’s budget vote was politically poor to say the least. On Nov. 7, all 120 legislative seats are on the ballot.

The Turnpike Authority maintains that it did not approve toll increases this week but rather that the increases were approved in May 2020 when the agency adopted a long-term funding plan.

The 2020 plan, which was controversial at the time, was approved to pay for a host of new capital projects. The plan included initial double-digit hikes and created an annual toll increase of up to 3 percent on the Turnpike and Parkway.

In May, the chair of the Turnpike Authority’s board, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who is also the head of the state transportation department and now Murphy’s chief of staff, said that tolls would go up next year.

Presumably had lawmakers wanted to block the increases, they could have done something before now, but they and Murphy quickly backtracked when the increase made headlines two weeks before an election with the Democrats’ legislative majority at stake.