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The Assembly State Government Committee convened a hearing today to discuss the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s plans to privatize toll collections along the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, a move that could impact nearly 700 workers between the two major highways.

Among those that testified at the hearing today were NJ Department of Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, NJ Turnpike Authority Executive Director Veronique Hakim, NJ State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech, Local 194 President Fran Ehret, Dolores Gorczyca, International Rep for IFPTE & Recording Secretary of the Coalition of Labor Union Women National Council, and Dr. Jeff Keefe, Rutgers University Professor, School of Management and Labor Relations.

“Despite the appearance of both the Transportation Commissioner and the Turnpike Authority Executive Director, we have been able to glean very little information on how these plans will impact both motorists and public employees currently collecting tolls. My biggest concern is that the administration is rushing into this plan blindly without thoroughly thinking through the long-term consequences or the impact it will have on our dedicated and long-standing public employees.

“Often times, hidden or indirect costs can significantly add to the price of a contract. When it comes to privatization deals, 60 percent of governments that eventually brought the service back in-house reported that the quality of service provided by the private operator was the main motivator. Privatization requires substantial oversight and monitoring, otherwise it can open the door to unscrupulous business operators and lucrative contracts paid for at the taxpayers’ expense,” said Committee Chairwoman Linda Stender (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union).

“Over the years we’ve seen plenty of examples of privatization plans that have gone awry, costing taxpayers more money and aggravation in the long-run. One of my biggest concerns is that the administration did not take into consideration the importance of including a living wage for toll collectors when they crafted the RFP for this privatization plan. If toll collectors’ wages are lowered, not only will it significantly impact their quality of life, but they may also become eligible for various public benefits, which will ultimately cost the state more in the long-run. Essentially, the administration would just be shifting costs from one place to another. These are the types of things that need to be studied before the administration capriciously moves ahead with any privatization efforts,” Vice-Chair Herb Conaway, M.D. (D-Burlington/Camden).

“Any effort to privatize is always about the bottom line. When a private company is hired to do a job previously performed by the public sector they are ultimately looking to make a profit. We need to find out where that profit will be coming from. Will it be through reduced services, lower wages for working class employees, or some other means that might directly impact taxpayers and motorists? These are all details that the administration should be providing before moving forward with these plans,” said Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer (D-Bergen/Essex/Passaic), the other Democratic member on the committee.