New Jersey’s transportation infrastructure got hit so hard by Superstorm Sandy that three weeks after the storm, the state is still reeling from the impacts. The devastation delivers a key message–sustainable transportation investment and policies are needed to weather the next storm. The damage in New Jersey received national attention: roads and bridges were swept away, major rail electrical substations were flooded, transit capacity was reduced to one cross Hudson rail tunnel, PATH service remains largely underwater, and the North Jersey Coastline service was suspended for three weeks because of damaged tracks and weakened bridges.
The storm damaged 261 NJTransit rail cars and 63 locomotives. NJTransit had so few buses to compensate for lost rail service that they borrowed over 400 buses from USDOT, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, and the Delaware Department of Transportation. While New Jersey will need to look at incorporating climate considerations in future infrastructure design and maintenance plans, much can be done by simply re-prioritizing how the state spends its transportation dollars.
Greater Emphasis on Existing Road and Bridge Infrastructure
Even before the storm, 50% of New Jersey’s roads were identified as deficient and over 200 bridges as structurally deficient. But instead of pursuing a broad fix-it-first strategy, NJDOT is spending more on new road capacity projects according to Tri-State’s analysis of the agency’s 2013 Capital Program. New Jersey must return to the policies that emphasized fix-it-first and made it a national model for sustainable transportation policy. Vulnerability assessments and resiliency upgrades for extreme weather events must also be incorporated into fix-it-first goals.
More Bicycle and Pedestrian Investment
The state must do even more to promote cycling and walking as viable transportation options in the state. In the days after the storm, New York City saw a 150% increase in cycling, largely because of the safe cycling infrastructure improvements made by NYCDOT over the past few years. New Jersey must do the same.
Modernizing Transit Infrastructure
More must be done to create resiliency and redundancy in the state’s transit system. The Access to the Region’s Core project, which Governor Christie cancelled in late 2010, would have doubled NJ Transit’s cross Hudson capacity providing an alternative tunnel into New York City. Similar projects, like Gateway, must be fast-tracked to ensure rail access between New York and New Jersey is not cut off in the future. With 80% of NJTransit trains utilizing the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor, the agency must work with Amtrak to bring the corridor into a state of good repair as NJDOT Commissioner and NJTransit Chairman Jim Simpson proposed this past March. Additionally, buses, which carry more passengers each weekday across the Hudson River than rail, deserve greater priority. Creating a New Jersey-bound exclusive bus lane in the Lincoln Tunnel during evening rush hours, modeled after the successful morning peak exclusive bus lane into NYC, is one way to improve bus service.
Finding the Funding
New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund continues to be overburdened by debt, and a historical political unwillingness to identify new and stable revenue sources remains the biggest roadblock to a healthy transportation system in New Jersey. Governor Christie has rightly called on the federal government to help rebuild New Jersey in the aftermath of Sandy, but he remains steadfast against increasing the state’s gas tax to pay for the costs of New Jersey’s roads and mass transit in the future. To effectively upgrade New Jersey’s transportation system to address the challenges of the climate change while also putting the state’s economy back on track, New Jersey’s elected officials will need to muster the political courage to make the difficult funding choices that have been put off for too long.