The New Jersey Turnpike Authority (NJTA) has posted official responses to public comments made on the NJ Turnpike expansion project, which would complete the dual-dual configuration (two 3-lane roadways in each direction) by adding up to 3 lanes in each direction between exits 6 and 9, an addition of 170 lane miles. Not surprisingly, the response document offers vague platitudes, ignores new data, and continues to refuse any solution to congestion that doesn’t include more pavement – making it the perfect companion piece to the original Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Tri-State has challenged several aspects of the project’s EIS, which found there would be no significant environmental impact (see MTR # 565). Most unconvincing is the NJTA’s evidence that the project is necessary as proposed and that it will provide sustainable congestion relief. Critically, the Authority ignores and fails to analyze whether additional lanes will fill with traffic due to induced demand and contribute to sprawl development (which leads to more congestion, and so on). These have been the historic consequences of highway construction and widening throughout the U.S.
The NJTA response document can be found here. Some notable passages are summarized below:
Purpose and Need
At the heart of any large project is a demonstrable purpose and need. According to the EIS, the purpose and need for the Turnpike widening is “to service existing and future travel demand.” The project assumes annual traffic growth of 2.4% northbound and 3.4% southbound between 2005 and 2032. Yet data we obtained from the Authority show that, since 2004, traffic volumes have leveled off in the project area, calling into question the project’s premise.
In response to a comment from a private citizen that the traffic data, based largely on numbers from 2005-2006, was stale and did not account for the effects of gas prices and the collapse of the housing market, the NJTA defends the timeliness of its data. It’s true that many large projects use numbers that are further out of date (see the Garden State Parkway widening). However, NJTA goes on to state “there is no strong evidence that these numbers have significantly changed over the last two years due to the economic issues stated in the comment.” This is simply false.
Alternatives to Widening
Large project proposals also require analysis of reasonable alternatives. In response to Tri-State’s comment that the Authority’s alternatives analysis was cursory and sometimes provided no analysis at all, the NJTA issued a blanket denial, stating that “alternatives were considered seriously in the EIS. … Sufficient analysis was included in the EIS to conclude that the alternatives are either not practicable from a feasiblility standpoint or would not reduce the needed additions in lane capacity to meet demand, safety, and operations requirements.” Here is the EIS’s treatment of ridesharing as an alternative in its entirety, which clearly lacks any analysis:
Ridesharing refers to strategies that encourage carpooling and vanpooling. Carpooling refers to the arrangement of a group of commuters that rideshare in a participant’s vehicle. Vanpools are generally similar to a carpool; however, instead of using a participant’s automobile, the group uses a van that can be supplied by employers, non-profit transportation advocacy groups or government agencies, with operating costs typically divided among group members and sometimes subsidized by the state and federal government. Depending upon the type of vehicles used, the capacity of a vanpool can be higher than a carpool. Carpools and vanpools tend to be most effective when they run on pre-determined fixed schedules and the number of occupied vehicle seats is maximized.
Environmental Impacts: Traffic, Sprawl, Greenhouse Gases
NJTA sometimes acknowledges induced demand, such as when it forecasts, without proof, less congestion on parallel roads because drivers will flock to the open road of the imagined Turnpike (see comments 3.15, 3.18, 3.61, 13.1, and 13.2). The agency also rejects non-stop cashless tolling because of induced demand, saying “additional traffic would be attracted to the turnpike as travel times for those users would be reduced.” If reduced travel time is undesirable, one has to wonder what the Authority is trying to achieve by widening the Turnpike.
But when it comes to the possibility that a widened Turnpike could lead to sprawl development and increased traffic, NJTA flatly denies the existence of induced demand. Many comments, including Tri-State’s, criticized the flimsy study of secondary impacts like the sprawling development associated with big capacity adding projects like this one — the EIS analyzes land use impacts only within a mile of the corridor (comment 2.6). As its only defense, NJTA says it has done all that is required of it according to Executive Order 215 – the document that requires agencies to prepare an EIS for large projects – and that there is further study of secondary impacts in the applications for Dept. of Environmental Protection Land Use Permits required by state law. This lack of study does not stop NJTA from saying that “a widened Turnpike would not exacerbate long term traffic congestion in Central New Jersey” (comment 2.5) and that no sprawl will be induced (comment 3.52).
In 2007, Gov. Corzine signed Executive Order 54, which calls for the reduction of NJ’s carbon footprint by twenty percent. We commented that the widening of the Turnpike would undermine this and other state environmental goals by encouraging sprawl and increasing traffic volumes. In response, the NJTA denies the allegation and offers the DEP’s concurrence in the finding of no significant adverse impact documented in the EIS. With no evidence or data backing either agency’s claim, the stamp of approval amounts to little more than “because we said so.”
Due Diligence Needed For a $2.7B Project
According to some news reports, the estimated cost of the Turnpike widening has risen to $2.7 billion. According to the Authority’s own projections, by 2032 travel times on the widened Turnpike will be higher than they are today (see, for example, comment 3.60). Before the NJTA embarks on a project that will cost almost $3 billion and fail to provide sustainable congestion relief, it owes New Jerseyans a thorough study of the alternatives, and public responses that make sense.