A New Jersey Assembly committee yesterday approved Gov. Jim Florio's plan to sell a stretch of highway to the Turnpike Authority for $400 million -- a move that could prompt the authority to refund up to $2.5 billion of outstanding bonds.

The vote by the Assembly Transportation Authorities Committee released the measure to the full Assembly, where a final vote is expected sometime this week. Last Thursday, the state Senate approved the plan, which Gov. Florio proposed as a one-shot method of helping to balance the proposed fiscal 1992 budget.

The vote in committee was 3 to 2, along party lines.

The committee also voted 5 to 0 to toughen the language regarding the status of tolls on the four-mile stretch of road, which connects the existing northern terminus of the turnpike with the George Washington Bridge. The amendment, submitted by committee Chairman George Spadoro, D-Middlesex, requires that the road remain "forever free of tolls." The original language had said only that the authority would be authorized to operate the road without collecting tolls.

State Treasurer Douglas C. Berman attended the hearing to address lawmakers' concerns that the road sale plan would jeopardize the state's triple-A credit rating. Standard & Poor's Corp. placed the state on CreditWatch with negative implications earlier this month, in part because of Gov. Florio's reliance on one-shot revenues, such as the road sale, to balance next year's budget.

Mr. Berman echoed testimony presented to the committee earlier this year, when he said the proposal, while admittedly a one-shot, would not directly result in a rating downgrade.

Even if the state assumes the revenues from the road sale, the 1992 budget still has a $1.1 billion gap. The governor has proposed a series of additional measures to balance the spending plan, including more union concessions and accelerated utility tax collections.

The Turnpike Authority has about $400 million of outstanding bond proceeds from a record $2 billion bond sale in 1985 earmarked for construction projects later this decade and almost $1 billion of additional proceeds intended for use on projects over the next several years.

It remains unclear whether the restrictive bond covenants from the earlier deal would permit the authority to use the $400 million for a road purchase instead of future construction projects. But market sources say a refunding of the entire outstanding amount is likely anyway, to eliminate the old bond covenants and to start fresh with more flexible language.

The Turnpike Authority is interviewing potential underwriters for the proposed refunding. Donald L. Watson, the authority's executive director, was not available for comment yesterday on the status of the syndicate selection

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