NJ Turnpike Strike Threat Complicates Holiday Driving Plans

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - As one of the busiest travel weekends of the year approaches, millions of drivers heading for New Jersey could see two of the state's busiest highways crippled by a toll worker strike.

Nearly four million vehicles are expected to travel the New Jersey Turnpike and about two million others will use the Garden State Parkway to and from New Jersey beaches during the July Fourth weekend.

Local 194 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents 1,500 Turnpike workers, is threatening to strike if its demand for a four percent pay increase in each year of a proposed four-year contract is not met. The Turnpike Authority, which oversees the 148-mile toll road, countered with an 11 percent pay raise spread out over four years with no increase the first year.

Last Friday, nearly 300 workers called in sick as a protest to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority's offer. Contracts for toll takers on both the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway expire at midnight.

The union representing Parkway toll workers has also voted to authorize a strike, but has not set any deadlines for walking off the job.

Following the recent sickout, the Turnpike Authority went to court and received an injunction barring any future work actions by Local 194 concerning this contract negotiation.

"We're still in the middle of negotiations. At this point we feel confident we can get this resolved," said Joe Orlando, spokesman for the Turnpike Authority. "Even if there was some type of job action by the union, we don't believe there would be much of an impact like there was in 1995."

A strike by toll collectors on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1995 caused mammoth delays and forced the Turnpike Authority to suspend toll collections for several hours on July 3rd.

According to records obtained by EZ Pass, nearly 62 percent of all drivers using the New Jersey Turnpike now pay their toll with EZ Pass. EZ Pass was not available in 1995.

"They voted to give authorization for whatever action is necessary, but it is my hope we can settle," said Fran Ehret, president of Local 194. "We're cautiously optimistic that this will be resolved."

Negotiations are scheduled continually through the contract deadline Tuesday.

Ehret would not comment on whether her union membership would strike if the Tuesday deadline passed without an agreement.

After four consecutive weekends of poor weather, promising weather forecasts along with lower gasoline prices are expected to bring out a record amount of drivers in New Jersey this weekend.

"We expect well over 800,000 drivers, a record amount of drivers to use the New Jersey Turnpike on Thursday, July 3rd," said Orlando.

A toll taker's strike could also affect the much-anticipated revenue for New Jersey shore communities, which has been sluggish since Memorial Day weekend due to rainy weather.

When told of the potential for a strike by the toll takers, reaction by Turnpike drivers was mixed at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area in East Brunswick, N.J.

"I have EZ Pass. I could care less what (toll takers) do," said Richard Wiederman of Jackson, N.J.

"I may have to rethink my travel plans," said Felipe Estella of New York City. "I plan to take my family to the Jersey shore, but that means taking the Turnpike and Parkway. If they strike, it'll make toll jams much worse, and it wouldn't be worth sitting in all that traffic."

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