Saturday, May 26, 2007

Taking It Up the Verizon Highway

NEW JERSEY'S BEACH SEASON begins this weekend, as the northern and western populations of the state pack their cars and boom south for three days of surf and sand. State officials always lust for a strong Memorial Day showing to set a lucrative tone for the summer tourist trade. Should we get rain or $4/gallon gas for a couple of weekends, however, legislators and budget drones in Trenton will wring their hands and glance nervously at the yawning $15 billion debt-hole they have dug over the past decade and a half. "However shall we fill it?" they will wail, as sales projections for salt-water taffy plunge to new lows.

Privatization to the rescue! New Jersey officials have been stroking their figurative beards at the course Indiana has taken in leasing roads and other public works to private companies. Sale of naming rights is no alien practice, especially not in Jersey, what with names like "Continental Airlines Arena" and "PNC Arts Center." tripping gaily off the tongue. Auctioning off rights not merely to rename, but to manage, an entire highway raises the profile — and the possible revenue — by an order of magnitude. Tops among our thoroughfares for shopping out to corporate interest is the New Jersey Turnpike, and pols are said to be eyeing its sister road, the shore-hugging Garden State Parkway, for the same treatment.

Clapping a dotty moniker on a stadium or arena is one matter. Ceding maintenance of some of our most important transit arteries is quite another. Consider what Tri-State Area businesses might take a financial interest in these roads, and your support for this method of funding might change.
  • The Verizon Turnpike, now featuring VZPass: Segments of the elevated Turnpike will suffer from "dropouts," resulting in cars falling through gaps in the rebar. You can get a billing adjustment by dialing #HOLE as your car sinks into the Meadowlands. In addition, credits for tolls will be available like cell minutes for your VZPass box. Overage and roaming charges apply, so don't leave the state without a second mortgage.
  • The Cablevision Parkway: You will receive a basic suite of exits you can take for a flat fee. More popular exits, such as Belmar, Point Pleasant, and Atlantic City, will be available at higher tiers. Slowdowns are blamed on "network traffic," but help will arrive soon, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays only; please listen to all options, as our menu items have changed. Speaking of change, every six months, the numbering of the exits will be rescrambled. Your shore getaway could become a trip to Newark Liberty because of a numerical glitch.
  • PSE&G Bridge: Former Governor Thomas Driscoll gets the Brendan Byrne treatment, courtesy of our beloved local power authority. Tolls will spike during temperature extremes, based on a formula that would leave Einstein curled in a ball under his desk. The landscape will be spiced up when PSE&G builds a nuclear reactor station on the site of the Amboy Cinema, so keep your windows closed.
  • The Merck Expressway: The South Jersey Transportation Authority decides to boot Atlantic City off the signs and cash in on Big Pharma's largesse. You will need a referral from your primary-care physician to get onto the highway. Tolls are 50¢ if you have in-plan drug coverage, $60 without. Side effects include dizziness, blurred vision, and getting rear-ended by a Chinatown gambling bus.
No word yet on interest on the 495 helix or the Warner Bros. bowtie of asphalt that links Routes 4 and 17. Should the first sale close, and if hurricanes and $5/gallon gas ravage the land this summer, soon you might be able to say hi to Lucy the Fox News Channel Elephant.

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