New Jersey began 2007 far ahead of New York and Connecticut in terms of sustainable transportation planning. While New York and Connecticut progressed slowly toward more sustainable policies in 2007, New Jersey, unfortunately, headed backwards. Though NJDOT maintained a capital plan focused on sustainability and fix it first priorities, many of the agency’s projects linking land use and transportation stagnated as the state’s political establishment pushed highway widening projects.
2007 was dominated by talk of Gov. Jon Corzine’s “asset monetization” plan to use state assets to raise revenue. Initial thought was that the plan would involve leasing the state’s toll roads to a private corporation to raise money for any number of programs. It now appears the plan, which is being released in the Governor’s State of the State address this afternoon, will involve bonding against toll increases, with most of the money going toward reducing state debt. Speculation over the plan unfortunately eclipsed most other transportation discussions this year. DOT officials were compelled to advocate for the monetization plan, to the detriment of worthy smart growth projects whose economic and social impacts would benefit NJ communities.
NJ Turnpike Authority
The NJTA’s response to congestion on the Garden State Parkway and NJ Turnpike has been old-school all the way – widen first, ask questions never. In 2007 NJTA completed environmental impact statements and held public hearings for its plans to widen the Parkway by one lane in each direction between exits 30 and 80, and the Turnpike between Interchange 6 and Interchange 9 to six lanes in each direction (between interchanges 9 and 8A, the Turnpike is five lanes in each direction; between 8A and 6 it is three lanes). While both roads are certainly congested, the widening plans put forth by the Turnpike Authority will not solve the problem. According to NJTA documents, portions of the new lanes along the GS Parkway will fill with traffic before the new lanes are built (see MTR #552), while the Turnpike project documents show huge projected increases in traffic due solely to the widening project itself (MTR # 565).
Both the Turnpike and GSP projects fail to adequately address alternatives to capacity expansion, despite the fact that less invasive alternatives, like deeper variable pricing incentives (the NJ Turnpike has time-of-day pricing already, the Parkway does not), HOT lanes, expanded mass transit, or the establishment of a freight management corridor along the Turnpike, are likely to do more to reduce congestion on the GSP and Turnpike in the long-term. Such alternatives will also cost less than the $2.5 billion needed for the two expansion projects. Unfortunately, environmental documents for the projects instead dismiss these alternatives out of hand, often without more than a few paragraphs of review. The irony of these projects is that NJDOT officials have proclaimed over and over again that road expansions do not lead to sustainable congestion relief (see MTR #542).
NJTA 2007 Overall Trend: Steady (…still holding steady since its creation in the 1940s)
Further evidence of the state’s backslide is the de-emphasis of innovative projects within the NJ Future In Transportation (NJFIT) program. Since 2003, NJDOT has gained a reputation as being a leader in moving away from highway expansion as a means of solving congestion, and toward a more holistic approach that connects local land use planning with transportation projects. The NJFIT program became a national model for progressive transportation policies, but a number of its projects now lay dormant, and a new round of projects has yet to be created. In 2007, NJDOT Commissioner and New Jersey Turnpike Authority Chairman Kris Kolluri was likely to be heard pushing the two major highway widening projects and the governor’s “asset monetization” plan, not the NJFIT program. NJDOT also lost a few enlightened staffers, including former Director of Project Planning and Development Gary Toth, who left in the spring to work for Project for Public Spaces.
However, NJDOT’s capital program maintained its fix-it-first commitment to maintaining the state’s infrastructure. Only 3% of its fiscal year 2008 budget was dedicated to highway expansion, while 47% will go to road and bridge maintenance. This is the sensible option, given the state’s needs. In October NJDOT released a report outlining $13.6 billion the state would need to spend over ten years to fix all of its deficient and functionally obsolete bridges, including the dangerously aging Pulaski Skyway.
NJDOT’s capital budget also included a record $34.6 million for bike and pedestrian projects. In 2007 the agency also awarded several important grants from a pedestrian safety initiative announced in 2006, including $4.15 million in Safe Routes to School grants to 29 communities, and $500,000 to the City of Newark for pedestrian safety improvements. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough. By September, NJDOT had received 274 applications for the SRTS program, but was only able to fund 29 of the requests. With 48% of municipalities seeking state aid for pedestrian and bicycle improvements, it is obvious that the political will to change is there – it’s just a matter of getting the money into the communities.
NJDOT 2007 Overall Trend: Downward
Though NJ Transit had raised fares in 2002 and 2005, by July 2006 elected and agency officials were discussing another fare increase, and those talks continued in 2007. The Tri-State Campaign pointed out that a fare hike would significantly impact low-income bus riders in Newark and other cities, and would work against Gov. Corzine’s stated goals on emissions reduction (see MTR # 552). However, NJ’s elected leaders failed to find additional dedicated funds for the agency, and an up to 10% fare increase took effect in July. NJ Transit remains the largest transit agency in the country with no dedicated source of operating funds. Meanwhile the state gas tax has not increased since 1988 and Parkway tolls have not risen since 1989.
Despite the fare hike, gas prices and a number of recent system expansions sent NJ Transit ridership to record levels, with average weekday ridership reaching 865,000 trips on the agency’s bus, rail and light rail lines. NJ Transit completed passing sidings on the Pascack Valley line, allowing for a more-than-doubling of weekly service and the first-ever weekend trains on the line. To accommodate the increased ridership, the agency authorized the purchase of more locomotives capable of pulling double-decker cars, and added trips and extended routes for 19 bus lines in 10 counties.
NJ Transit 2007 Overall Trend: Steady (despite lack of support from Trenton)
Can NJ Reverse the Backslide?
Gov. Corzine seems to have focused his attention on the admittedly complicated problem of state debt. Unfortunately, in doing so he and his appointees seem to have lost focus on the equally complicated problems of congestion and sustainable transportation planning, reaching for familiar but ineffective solutions like highway expansion instead of the innovations coming out of the NJFIT program.
Rather than blindly continue with highway widenings, the NJTA needs to step back and consider a new approach. The agency should at least realistically consider alternatives like HOT/bus lanes or deeper pricing incentives as demand-management tools.
NJDOT still has a strong, smart growth oriented NJFIT program, but a lack of political leadership has hamstrung the agency’s efforts to continue its cutting-edge efforts to link land-use and transportation planning. The agency must continue to hire forward-thinking staff, and then do what it can to gain political support for smart growth policies. It should also increase the amount of money it spends on rail freight and bike and pedestrian projects.
NJ Transit should continue its aggressive system expansion, but with a greater focus on urban and intra-state transit needs in places like Newark. State elected officials must guarantee that the agency does not propose its fourth fare hike of the decade – finding a dedicated source of operating funds would help.
In 2008, transportation policy discussions will likely continue to focus on the sure-to-be-contentious “asset monetization” plan. Corzine’s plan may well include innovative ideas about sustainable transportation funding – but if this funding goes to unsustainable highway widenings, it will be a serious setback in the state’s progress toward smarter planning.