Kolluri: Thinking Bigger, but Not Necessarily Better

Turnpike widening

At the “Thinking Bigger” conference at NYU this morning, NJDOT Commissioner and NJ Turnpike Authority Chairman Kris Kolluri listed the hefty needs of the state’s transportation network, and, once again, included the expansion of the NJ Turnpike as a vital priority.Kolluri has consistently included the NJ Turnpike widening, which would add up to three lanes in each direction from exits 6 to 9, among the state’s urgent transportation needs. Often the Turnpike widening is depicted as equal in importance to, say, bridge maintenance and the ARC passenger rail tunnel under the Hudson River. This morning, the Commissioner was at it again, saying the Turnpike Authority had $5 billion in debt on its books, specifically mentioning the 170 lane mile expansion project.

Currently, however, the Turnpike project is a choice, not a need. In fact, it’s likely that less expensive and invasive alternatives, like stronger variable pricing incentives, HOT lanes, expanded mass transit, or the establishment of a freight management corridor, would do more to reduce congestion on the Turnpike in the long-term than the $2 billion expansion project. Unfortunately, environmental documents for the project fail to adequately analyze these alternatives, instead dismissing them out of hand, often without more than a few paragraphs of review.

Such alternatives have political benefits as well, since another controversial aspect of the Turnpike project is the acquisition of 381 acres of private land by eminent domain, a fact that has folks from communities such as Bordentown up in arms. (The Turnpike Authority’s poor public outreach doesn’t help matters— despite increasing environmental awareness in our region, the project’s website still lists such egregious things as “10 million cubic yards of earthwork,” and “114 acres of wetland impact” as “Program Highlights” (see also MTR # 565)

Kolluri was clearly making the case for Governor Corzine’s soon-to-be-released asset monetization plan, which seeks to raise revenue by leasing public assets like the NJ Turnpike for private investment. His argument is built around the very real fact that NJ’s Transportation Trust Fund is empty after 2011, and that driving on the NJ Turnpike and Garden State Parkway remains one of the best deals around: tolls on the Parkway translate into 2.2 cents a mile, while those on the Turnpike are at 5.5 cents a mile (Parkway tolls haven’t increased since the late eighties, and Turnpike tolls have increased five times in about fifty years.) Kolluri is indeed right that the transportation needs in the state are enormous, but to include the Turnpike expansion in that list is moving the state backward, not forward.

Unfortunately, there was no question and answer session after Kolluri’s keynote address. Had there been, the obvious question Tri-State would have asked is this:

The NJDOT has been a leader in moving away from highway expansion as a means of solving congestion, and towards a more holistic approach that connects local land use planning with transportation projects. In the mid-nineties, NJDOT was spending over 50% of its capital dollars on roadway expansion. Today, that number is down to less than 3%.

However, the reform has clearly not extended to the NJ Turnpike Authority. In an era of managed lanes, variable pricing, and fixing existing infrastructure first, and given NJDOT’s leadership in the incorporation of smart growth concepts and connecting land use and transportation, why are you still turning to an old-fashioned, expensive widening project to solve congestion on the Turnpike?”

Commissioner, we look forward to a response.

Photo: The NJ Turnpike at Exit 9, where it is a 12-lane highway. South of Exit 9, the highway narrows to 10 lanes, and then to 6 lanes. The NJ Turnpike Authority wants to widen the road to 12 lanes between Exits 6 and 9. [Photo from Turnpike Authority presentation.]

12 Comments on "Kolluri: Thinking Bigger, but Not Necessarily Better"

  1. Kate: Agreed that GSP and Turnpike are relative bargains toll-wise. I’m interested how you get 2.2 cents and 5.5 cents per mile, respectively, for the GSP and NJTP? Care to share the math?

    Thanks.

  2. The math is not ours. Kolluri cited the numbers in his speech. I assume he divided the toll to travel the entire length of the Parkway by the length of the Parkway (175 miles). My quick calculation is a little higher, however.

    A AAA study earlier this year found that toll rates on the NYS Thruway are the cheapest in the region (3 cents per mile) with NJ Turnpike and GSP not far behind (averaging 4 cents per mile). The latter is consistent with Kolluri’s numbers [(2.2 + 5.5)/2] = 3.9

    In other words, NJ Turnpike and GS Parkway are a bargain.

  3. Thanks for the response. Again, I agree they’re a bargain.

    We did the AAA study (Mid-Atlantic): We found 4 cents for GSP ($6.65 / 173) and 6 cents ($6.45 / 113) for NJTurnpike. The Thruway rate is 3, you’re right.

    The Commissioner must have mispoke. Commissioner?

    Dave

  4. Thanks Dave. Where can we (and our readers) find a copy of your full report?

  5. Shoot me an e-mail, I’ll send it to you – and you can post, crediting AAA Mid-Atlantic, of course, for the research.

    dweinstein(at)aaamidatlantic.com

  6. Has anyone tried to contact Mr. Kolluri directly about these issues? Did he respond?

  7. Yes, Commissioner Kolluri is very aware of our position. We disagree about the issue. He is very committed to widening the NJ Turnpike.

  8. Are there any legal measures that can be taken to stop the widening? Does the Global Warming Response Act offer any options?

  9. TSTC is really barking up the wrong tree by opposing the Turnpike widening. This stretch of the Turnpike is part of THE main north-south highway link along the east coast.

    The alternatives that TSTC proposes might be appropriate for a highway that is primarily a commuter route. They would have little impact, however, on a roadway that serves as many long-distance travelers, including trucks, as the Turnpike does. Just ask some of the drivers who suffer the every-Sunday jam northbound from 7 to 8A.

    That said, I also think the NJTA should go well beyond its mimimum obligations to mitigate the impacts to its neighbors. But it should also move forward with this long-overdue project — and let its users pay for it with higher tolls.

  10. Continuing to spend large amounts of money to increase road capacity is completely and utterly shortsighted. What the east coast north-south corridor needs is a large investment in rail to move both freight and passengers, not expansion of highways.

    Have you read the news lately? Gas is now over $3 nationwide and oil production worldwide is not keeping up with demand. All this and there is no current embargo or supply disruption. If we want to keep the region moving we need to shift away from promoting the private automobile over all other modes.

    Call me alarmist, and I know the auto industry advocates have heard this “nonsense” before, but this is 2007 not 1980. In today’s world highway expansion is a bad investment no matter who ends up paying for it.

  11. Victor: You don’t get out much, do you? If you did, you would find that people are still driving and traffic jams are still happening, even with $3/gal gas. Mass transit definitely has its place, but just WILL NOT make even a tiny dent in Turnpike traffic.

    Face it: The automobile might not always be powered by fossil fuels, but it will ALWAYS be a huge part of the transportation picture.

  12. Tom Marchwinski | December 1, 2007 at 5:28 pm |

    I believe the comment by GP Olsen is partly correct. A large part of the need for the widening is for weekend and holiday travel, as one who goes near this section about every 2 weekends, the back-up is large and its a a result mostly of recreational, not commuter traffic. So there is some need for an expansion long-term. This section has only moderate congestion during peak hours, and so I think an expansion is warranted, with conditions which have not been discussed and should be discussed.

    As a condition of the widening, the turnpike should raise tolls to partly fund transit improvements in this corrider. Right now I am amazed there is NO MITIGATION for the widening required. Back in the mid-1980’s the widening through Elizabeth and from Exit 8A to 9 was required to do the following as mitigation for widening:

    Put in an HOV lane. This was done, and remains the only HOV lane (3+) in the state with over 200 buses per hour
    Two park-rides were built. Vince Lombardi was expanded by 900 parking spaces, and the Exit 8A park-ride of about 500 spaces was built, and new bus service put in, and recently expanded because it was so popular. Another park-ride at Exit 10 near Raritan Center was planned but dropped because of opposition and limited demand.

    Tri-State and others should campaign for the Turnpike to invest in mitigation strategies for transit as part of the balance for this widening. Among the projects nearby that could benefit:

    Funding for new park-rides or expanded bus service. This could include to Non-Ny locations like New Brunswick, or fund feeder bus services to Princeton Jct. Another would be to put some money into the Transportation Trust Fund for Northeast Corrider infrastructure imporvements to modernize part of the NEC in NJ, like the electrical system, or money for signal improvements to increase NEC train capacity, or funding to jump start things like the long term need to put in a 5th track at Metropark, or island platforms and new station facilities so AMTRAK trains could stop without delaying NJT trains. This would speed up all trains and decrease delays. The NEC infrastructure is becoming more problematic because of underinvestment by AMTRAK since the mid-1990’s. The Turnpike is part of the Northeast Corridor, and improvements to parallel transit infrastructure should be part of a total package which includes the widening

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