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.]