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If your commute takes you along the New Jersey Turnpike or Garden State Parkway, you no doubt already know what happened on January 1, 2012: your wallet got a little thinner. Tolls on both of those roads went up about 50 percent on New Year’s Day, and for some drivers, that could mean a difference of hundreds of dollars per year.

The toll hikes, which were approved in 2008 and are the second toll increases in four years (tolls went up about 40 percent in 2008), are designed to help pay for a 10-year, $7 billion capital program that includes turnpike widening and bridge restoration. The spending plan also originally included the state’s $1.25 billion contribution for construction of the ARC rail tunnel under the Hudson River; that project was scrapped in 2010. The State Senate passed a bill last year to reduce the tolls, arguing they weren’t needed to support borrowing money for the nonexistent tunnel project, but the Assembly never voted on it and the Governor insisted he would veto the measure.

The increases come at a time when the Turnpike Authority is already struggling with its finances. Toll revenue was $47 million lower than projected as of October 2011, a drop that the agency attributed to steep gas prices, unemployment and severe weather, according to authority financial statements. And last November, Moody’s Investors Service gave the authority a negative outlook rating, citing New Jersey’s slow economic recovery and unemployment as factors in driving down revenue on state toll roads.

And last week, news started coming out that New Jersey drivers have started to avoid the state’s toll roads as a result of the price hikes. The Turnpike Authority told media outlets last week that traffic on the state’s two major highways decreased in the first week of 2012 compared to a year ago. According to news reports, Spokesman Tom Feeney says 70,000 fewer vehicles drove on the turnpike in the first five weekdays of the month, which is nearly a 3 percent drop. Furthermore, more than 100,000 fewer vehicles traveled on the Garden State Parkway during the same time period, a similar decrease.

While many agree that the toll hikes are a necessary evil to finance the state’s transportation capital plan and its emphasis on fixing New Jersey’s aging infrastructure, drivers are certainly feeling the pinch in struggling economy. On the Move readers, are you feeling the pain at the toll booth? If so, are you making any changes in your driving habits to compensate? And don’t forget, if you’re looking for ideas for alternative ways to get around, GMTMA is here to help.  CarpoolingVanpoolingRiding transitWalking and biking.TelecommutingWorking flex hours. Retrofitting our streets to make them “Complete Streets” that accommodate all users, not just cars. Are you interested in driving less? We can help.

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