2010 proved to be a disastrous year for New Jersey transportation, with the state’s most pressing transportation challenge going unaddressed and with great leaps backward in policy. New Governor Chris Christie entered the year well aware that the state’s transportation system needed a long-term funding solution. The Transportation Trust Fund (which gets most of its revenue from the state gas tax and represents the state’s contribution to the NJDOT and NJ Transit capital programs) had been borrowed against for too long and would go bankrupt by July 2011.
Gov. Christie didn’t address the issue during 2010. But the tough budget environment hit transit riders in other ways, leading to major fare hikes and service cuts and the cancellation of the Access to the Region’s Core project, a rail tunnel between NYC and New Jersey that was necessary to increase service on the state rail system.
A Tough Year for Transit Riders
To say it was a tough year for transit riders in New Jersey would be an understatement. The new governor opened the year by cutting state support for NJ Transit by 11%. A proposal for a 25% fare increase and huge service cuts soon followed. Thousands of riders protested at public hearings and sent messages to state politicians, and NJ Transit eventually lowered the fare hike for local bus and light rail riders to 10% while keeping the 25% hike for commuter trains and buses. But the increase was still the largest in a generation.
In May, NJDOT Commissioner Jim Simpson revealed that the Christie administration had backed away from a financial commitment to a planned bus rapid transit and PATCO rail extension project in South Jersey.
But this was just a sneak preview of one of the largest stories of the year — the cancellation of the ARC Tunnel. As recently as April, the governor was calling the ARC Tunnel “critical for the transit riders of New Jersey” and standing squarely behind the project, which represented the culmination of 20 years of planning and was the largest transit project in the nation. But in September he suspended new work on the project for 30 days, supposedly to review project costs.
Many observers, however, had an alternate theory: that killing the tunnel could be a means to shore up the Transportation Trust Fund. NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein admitted as such, telling state legislators that cancelling the project could be a way to do so. The governor was urged to reconsider this short-sighted decision by broad swathes of the state’s civic, labor, business, and environmental communities, and Christie delayed making a decision as thousands of New Jerseyans came out to support the project. USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood flew down and set up last-minute federal-state discussions to try and salvage the project. But after delaying a decision again, Gov. Christie rejected several offered financing options.
On October 27, the governor made the decision official, effectively precluding any major improvements to the rail network for at least the next 20 years. Doing so also put the state on the hook to repay $271 million in federal funds that had been spent on the project. The federal government has since reduced that amount, and the state has hired a D.C. law firm to try and lower the bill further.
Toll Road Widenings Advance
Even as major transit projects languished, the Christie administration borrowed billions of dollars to advance major road widening projects. Both the Garden State Parkway widening (between mileposts 63 and 80) and NJ Turnpike widening (6-8A), which the Corzine administration broke ground on, advanced further under Gov. Christie.
Over the summer, a controversy broke out when the state Dept. of Environmental Protection said it would use money earmarked for replacing trees displaced by the Turnpike widening for other purposes. Local municipalities filed suit and even engaged in some civil disobedience to block the widening until the NJTA agreed to replant as many trees as originally promised.
In September, the Turnpike Authority announced it would borrow $2 billion to support the two projects.
Still unresolved is the fate of the $1.25 billion (between now and 2017) in toll revenue which would have gone to the ARC project. As mentioned above, many observers believe this will be used to prop up the Transportation Trust Fund. But if no action is taken to move these funds, they could wind up paying for further Turnpike Authority road widening projects instead.
NJDOT Policy Stagnation
Earlier in the decade, New Jersey DOT became a national leader for connecting land use and transportation. But the recognition that the two are linked has slowly slipped over the past few years, and showed no signs of coming back in 2010. With so much attention focused on the funding crisis and ARC Tunnel, NJDOT policy stagnated, with essentially no reform. There was little news about smart “Future in Transportation” projects like the conversion of Route 29 in Trenton to a waterfront boulevard.
NJDOT also showed a more hostile face to outside watchdogs and the public, refusing to divulge information about future planned construction projects. Documents from prior years suggested a gradual trend towards increased road expansion.
A Few Bright Spots Among New Jersey’s Municipalities
Good news from New Jersey came almost exclusively from local governments this year. Montclair, Somerville, and Linden received the state’s Transit Village designation, Monmouth County, West Windsor, Red Bank, Netcong, and Hoboken also passed local complete streets policies, supporting the idea that roads should be planned for walkers, bikers, and transit users in addition to drivers.
Hoboken proved to be a model for local policy reform. The city embraced car-sharing, expanded its bike network and transit offerings, and started a “20 is plenty” effort to lower speeds in the city.
WTTF?! Still No Answers to Funding Question
Even before taking office, Gov. Christie ruled out an increase in the state gas tax (which hasn’t been raised since 1988) to pay for transportation. By doing so he threw out what would have been his most potent tool for raising revenue. In October, the governor said he would unveil a transportation funding plan by the end of the year. But he failed to fulfill that promise, even though the need for a funding solution is greater than ever. Without a robust solution for the Transportation Trust Fund, the state’s progress on fixing its deficient bridges will be lost (as shown by a TSTC report), road conditions will continue to deteoriate, and the state won’t have the funds to maintain or expand the transit system.
Not that the governor appears to care about transit riders. The cancellation of ARC may have been a desperate attempt to free up funds for other transportation projects, or a cynical ploy for national attention. But what it was not was good policy. By killing the ARC Tunnel while allowing the toll road widenings to move forward, Christie clearly revealed himself to be an anti-transit governor. People who rely on buses and trains to get around ought to be on edge in 2011, when the state’s continued economic challenges could put transit on the chopping block again.