Legislators, Advocacy Groups Want New Jersey To Fund Mass Transit Improvements, Not Highway Projects

Several North Jersey legislators and advocacy groups are urging Gov. Phil Murphy to reconsider the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s (NJTA) $24 billion capital plan—which includes $16 billion for highway widening projects—and put the money towards mass transit upgrades.

Widening over 100 miles of the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway is major component of the NJTA’s capital plan released in March, a program critics say doesn’t call for any improvements to state’s mass transit or electric vehicle infrastructure.

On April 27, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a coalition made up of several advocacy groups, released an alternative plan highlighting nearly 30 unfunded projects they say will create more than a million jobs, reduce traffic congestion and help New Jersey meet some of its clear air and energy goals.

Rail and Road to Recovery

The $25.8 billion worth of projects included in the “Rail and Road to Recovery” are a way to “increase capacity, improve reliability and expand the reach of New Jersey’s public transportation system,” the report states.

According to the campaign’s report, money invested today and projects built for tomorrow are likely to impact the state for decades, “which is why it’s important that we get this right. This is an opportunity to make New Jersey a healthier and more sustainable place to live and do business.”

More than a dozen of the projects aim to increase capacity to rail and bus lines in North Jersey, the most heavily populated region in the state.

Fix Bridges

The coalition believes the state should spend money on getting roads and bridges into better shape, rather than widening major highways. According to the report, 36% of the state’s highways are in poor condition, 529 bridges are structurally deficient and 2,367 are in need of repair.

Those fixes, the report said, will cost over $10 billion—at least $8.6 billion for bridges and $679 million for just the top 500 state road projects over the next few years. Those numbers do not include needed repairs to the far larger network of local and county roads.

Weinberg Weighs In

During a virtual press conference, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman John McKeon, along with representatives from several transit and environmental advocacy organizations, called for the state to reallocate the $16 billion earmarked for highway widening and consider funding some of the projects identified in the report.

Besides state legislators, mayors and other elected officials, groups calling for a change include BlueWaveNJ, NJ Citizen Action, North Jersey Sierra Club and Clean Water Action.

Weinberg said investing in mass transit needs to become a priority for the Garden State.

Light Rail Expansion

“We need expanded light rail, two new rail tunnels under the Hudson and improved service on NJ Transit. Road widenings will not solve our state’s transportation woes,” she said.

Marcia Marley, president of BlueWaveNJ, said the highway work “will provide New Jerseyans with little or no long-term benefit.”

“While NJTA claims that the widenings will reduce traffic congestion, the evidence suggest the opposite—study after study shows that highway widening, particularly in urban areas, only provides temporary relief from congestion. Without additional mass transit capacity, it leads to ‘induced demand’ with the widened highways quickly filling to capacity,” Marley said.

Be More Green-Minded

Critics opined NJTA’s plan doesn’t solve the state’s growing transportation needs nor does it meet the governor’s agendas for jobs, climate and clean energy.

“Although difficult to find any grace in the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s given us a window to see how the air can be cleared when automobile travel is significantly less,” McKeon said.

“As we work towards the governor’s 100% clean energy by 2050 goal, I would hope the administration would consider alternatives to how our precious resources are being focused on traditional modes of transportation and consider shifting towards more ecologically friendlier options,” said the Assemblyman.

Jeff Tittle, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said, “We can have a win-win-win situation by taking the money from the NJ Turnpike and Garden State Parkway widening and building mass transit.  This plan will reduce traffic, air pollution, and create more jobs for our economy. This alternative will help build a fairer, better and brighter New Jersey.”

Proposed North Jersey Projects

Of the 27 projects, 15 involve improvements to rail lines that serve commuters in Bergen, Passaic, Essex and Hudson counties.

In its report, the coalition noted that NJ Transit riders often deal with “overcrowded trains, unreliable and infrequent service and antiquated infrastructure” and improvements are desperately needed to the overall system.

Rail Improvements between NJ and NYC

  • Hudson River Tunnels ($7.25 billion) – Doubling rail capacity between New Jersey and New York City, as part of Amtrak’s $30 billion Gateway project, by adding a pair of single track tunnels under the Hudson River.
  • Secaucus Junction Loop ($1.3 billion) – Creating a one seat rail service for commuters from Bergen and Passaic counties to New York City was also included in the Gateway project. It would involve adding a set of tracks that connects the Main Line and Northeast Corridor at Secaucus Junction.
  • Newark To New York Fourth Track ($1.35 billion) – Increasing capacity on the Northeast Corridor line by adding four new tracks along the length of the Highline from Newark to the Hudson River Tunnels.
  • Highline Bridge Replacement ($300 million) – Removing a capacity bottleneck on the Northeast Corridor, the Highline. Plans call for replacing the existing two-track bridges in the Meadowlands with new four-track bridges, including a bridge that carries the Northeast Corridor line over the NJ Transit Morristown and Path lines.

Rail Line Expansions

  • Northern Branch Corridor ($1.3 billion) – Extending the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail north into Tenafly. Initially proposed in 2001, the plan calls for using a “lightly-used” freight line owned by CSX Transportation.
  • Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Route 440 Extension ($220 million) – Extending the line to Hackensack waterfront development in Jersey City. It would involve a 0.7-mile extension and one new station west of Route 440. The line could potentially be extended further west along the former Newark and New York Railroad right-of-way to Kearny and Newark.
  • West Shore Line ($1.4 billion) – Increasing light rail service in Bergen County by reactivating 30 miles of the West Shore Line for passenger service. NJ Transit has previously studied the line, which would start in West Nyack, NY and end at Hoboken Terminal.
  • New York, Susquehanna & Western Line ($627 million) – Reactivating passenger rail service on the NYS&W line between Pompton Junction and Hawthorne, where it will connect to NJ Transit’s Main Line.
  • Passaic-Bergen Rail Project ($1.4 billion) – Reintroducing light rail service on a portion of the NYS&W right-of-way in Passaic and Bergen counties, running 10 miles south from Hawthorne to Paterson and then east to Hackensack.
  • Hudson-Bergen Light Rail to Secaucus ($588 billion) – Extending the line to Secaucus Junction via Bergen Arches, an abandoned right-of-way through Bergen Hill in Jersey City. Various projects have been proposed for the abandoned track bed including a 4.2-mile extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, which would connect downtown Jersey City with a regional rail transfer station at Secaucus Junction.
  • Newark Subway to Paterson ($1.54 billion) – Extending light rail service from Newark to Paterson has been discussed for decades and it was recently included in the Regional Plan Association’s Fourth Regional Plan. A new light rail service would utilize the dormant Erie Railroad Main Line right-of-way, providing Clifton, Nutley, and Belleville with connections to Paterson and Newark Penn Station.

Rail Line Electrification

The report proposes electrifying two local rail lines (Bergen County & Main Line, $630 million, and Pascack Valley Line, $468 million) to provide “more reliable and faster commuter service.” The projects, the report said, “should also examine the feasibility of reducing the number of grade crossings and retrofitting stations to accommodate high platform boarding.”

Other projects

  • Bergen County Bus Rapid Transit ($162 million) – The proposed network would “complement, but not duplicate” commuter rail and other transit services in North Jersey and feature four corridors to “fill important gaps” by offering fast service to key locations in Bergen County and nearby cities, towns and points of interest.
  • Northern Bus Garage (TBD) – Increasing NJ Transit’s bus fleet capacity by building a new garage to house up to 500, new 45-foot buses. The garage would help alleviate overcrowding in existing garages and allow for future growth. In March, NJ Transit approved a plan acquire four parcels of abandoned and for-sale property in Ridgefield Park for the construction.

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