Coronavirus update: Activists slam Turnpike toll hike, Murphy names restart team

Cars and trucks are shown jammed on the southbound New Jersey Turnpike. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

Cars and trucks are shown jammed on the southbound New Jersey Turnpike. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

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New Jersey reported 2,887 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 113,856.

Another 402 people died of complications from COVID-19. The state has now lost 6,442 residents total to the pandemic.

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‘Epitome of foolishness’: N.J. Turnpike Authority slammed over toll hike plan

New Jersey officials faced sharp criticism Tuesday over a plan to raise tolls on the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway in the middle of a pandemic.

The money would fund $24 billion worth of highway widening and other projects. Average tolls on the Turnpike would increase by $1.30, and on the Parkway by $0.30.

During the Turnpike Authority’s monthly meeting on Tuesday, held via telephone, activists slammed board members for considering the proposal at a time when stay-at-home orders make public participation difficult.

They also raised objections to the plan itself, especially its emphasis on highway widening. They said it will increase carbon emissions by putting more cars on the road, degrade air quality and may actually lead to more traffic congestion.

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Activist Lauren Morse pointed to research linking poor air quality to higher rates of death from COVID-19.

“Given everything we know about the impact on human health, and given everything we know about the dire need to drastically cut our emissions, this just seems to me the epitome of foolishness,” she said.

Environmental and transportation advocacy groups have pitched an alternative capital plan that focuses more on mass transit.

The existing proposal, however, has the backing of labor and construction groups. State Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti has framed it as an economic stimulus that will create badly needed jobs.

The Turnpike Authority has not yet scheduled a vote to approve the plan.

Murphy approves delay in property-tax deadline

New Jersey municipalities have the option of extending the payment deadline for second-quarter property taxes from May 1 to June 1 under an executive order that Gov. Phil Murphy signed Tuesday.

The move comes as more than 850,000 residents have applied for unemployment benefits during a coronavirus-induced economic downturn.

The executive order temporarily supersedes existing law, which allows towns to offer a grace period of up to 10 days.

Fort Lee, in Bergen County, openly defied that law last week when it pushed its second-quarter payment deadline back to June 10, and other towns were reportedly considering similar moves even before Murphy’s announcement.

Murphy previously pushed back the state’s April 15 income tax deadline by three months.

High-profile roster for restart commission

A day after unveiling a six-phase plan for reopening the state’s economy, Murphy on Tuesday announced a star-studded roster to help guide that process that features far more Democrats than Republicans.

The Governor’s Restart and Recovery Commission will be co-chaired by President Emeritus of Princeton University Shirley Tilghman and Merck CEO Ken Frazier.

Among the 19 other members are Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve under presidents of both parties; Lisa Jackson, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama; and Jeh Johnson, former U.S. secretary of homeland security, who also served under Obama.

The governor also tapped incoming Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway and Evelyn McGee-Colbert, president of Montclair Film and wife of Late Show host Stephen Colbert.

“This team is uniquely qualified for this challenge,” said Murphy, a Democrat. “These are people who have spent their careers rising to the challenge and providing leadership on the global stage. Now they will be advocates and assets for New Jersey.”

Other members include Denise Morrison, who abruptly resigned as CEO of Campbell Soup in 2018 after a sales slump; Neera Tanden, who leads the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy institute based in Washington; and labor leader Richard Trumka, national president of the AFL-CIO.

Murphy said he didn’t know when the group would start meeting, although a release from the governor’s office said its work would start “immediately.”

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