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New Jersey to Take Bids for Turnpike Toll Operator

New Jersey, the most densely populated U.S. state, plans to take bids in December for private operators to take over highway-toll collection, state Transportation Commissioner James Simpson said.

The proposal would replace about 700 unionized toll collectors on the 148-mile (238-kilometer) New Jersey Turnpike. Simpson, who also is chairman of the state Turnpike Authority, said soliciting bids will help the state cut costs by winning reductions in union work rules for collectors.

“With the toll collection and ancillary services, it’s become a monopoly,” Simpson told reporters after the regular monthly meeting of the authority in Woodbridge today. “We just want the means to get real with work rules.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie created a task force in March to study whether the state would save money if public jobs or agencies were operated by private firms. A report released by the panel in July said the state may save as much as $43 million a year by allowing a private company to collect tolls.

Simpson said other tasks such as guard-rail repair and highway maintenance are being considered for privatization.

Comptroller’s Report

Fran Ehret, president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers Local 194, opposed the plan. The union represents about 1,500 Turnpike workers including the toll collectors.

“We’re hoping they don’t do that,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “We have middle-class families’ lives at stake.”

The toll-road operator, which collects $1.1 billion in annual revenue and plans to issue $2.5 billion in bonds by year-end, was criticized in an audit released Oct. 19 by state Comptroller Matthew Boxer for what he said was $43 million of waste, including inappropriate bonuses for working on birthdays.

The authority gave employees $430,000 of free rides on the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, overpaid a law firm $224,000 last year, and spent $12,000 to sponsor an employee bowling league and $3.8 million in payouts for unused sick days, according to Boxer’s report.

The board of the agency voted today to eliminate free employee commutes, automatic salary increases for workers on the job more than 10 years, and the ability of non-unionized employees to cash in unused sick and vacation pay annually.

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