NJ toll-road traffic ticks up; borrowing planned but not cuts
With traffic and revenue down amid the partial lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority plans to refinance its debt to defer payments but hasn’t yet reduced its current or upcoming operating budgets.
Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said in an online news conference held by the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association that the Turnpike Authority plans to bridge the loss in revenues – $108 million since January – by issuing $259 million in revenue bonds to refinance debt that would otherwise have had payments due this year and next.
“We have not taken any action as of today to reduce our operating budgets, either for the balance of this fiscal year or into next, but we will continue to monitor both, and we can take action at any of our monthly board meetings,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
Traffic in April was down 62% on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway combined and 67% on the Atlantic City Expressway, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. It is rebounding in May, but she said that data won’t be released until next month.
“This to me is different than most other types of crises we face because so much of it is based on human behavior and the fear that people have of the virus and its ability to be controlled,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
She said in the medium-term, toll-road revenues will still be down but that future patterns have many unknown variables, including people’s comfort level with returning to public transit.
“It’s something that we have to look at. We don’t know what the return to New Jersey Transit will be,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
Toll roads around the country have seen traffic and revenue declines of 50% to 90%, and their operators hold out hope that the federal government will provide them help – direct funding or loans and credit lines, or perhaps other regulatory changes related to their debts.
Gutierrez-Scaccetti said if the federal government doesn’t provide assistance, toll-road agencies have options to reduce spending or increase revenues.
“We’re businesses, and that’s how we were all formulated, to be able to rely on our revenue streams, and we will act accordingly like any business does and adjust our expense lines and adjust our capital investments to make certain that we continue to meet our obligations,” she said.
“State DOTs don’t necessarily have the same opportunity to just control the revenue stream, but toll agencies, user fee agencies do,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “And I think you’ll see that that’s what all of us will do to the extent that traffic and revenue numbers stay down.”
With the Memorial Day weekend approaching, the traditional start to the summer travel season, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said that “we’re seeing traffic tick up” but that there aren’t formal projections for traffic volume on the Garden State Parkway. That wouldn’t be done even in normal times, she said.
“I think people are very excited that the Jersey Shore is going to be available to them for the Memorial Day weekend,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “And we are hoping for strong traffic performance that is certainly monitored carefully by proper social distancing and really the prescriptives that help maintain that flattened curve that the governor talks so much about.”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti said Memorial Day weekend performance won’t make a tremendous difference to the toll roads’ budgets. She said traffic will come back and that she’s not concerned about it.
“We’re looking for strong traffic performance, but we really want people to remain very focused on social distancing, wearing face coverings, doing what is right not only to keep them safe but to keep those around them safe,” she said. “While I’d really like to see strong traffic performance, I don’t want to see strong traffic performance at the expense of anybody’s health.”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti urged drivers – particularly those who haven’t been out and are anxious to reach their destination – to remember safety measures such as moving over for first respondents and service patrol vehicles.
“The roads have been empty, and people have really taken it as an opportunity to test the speed of their vehicles,” she said. “Please remember, especially this holiday season with more people being on the roads, please obey posted speed limits. Please be very careful. Move over if you see incidents on the sides of the road. … Enjoy Memorial Day weekend, but enjoy it safely for all reasons.”