NJ headed for transportation crisis, expert says
Facing a crumbling transportation infrastructure and no money in sight to fix it, could New Jersey be headed for a bonafide transportation crisis in the near future?
New Jersey's roads are among the worst in the nation and the state is home to hundreds of bridges that have been classified as structurally deficient and functionally obsolete.
A report released in Jan. 2015 by TRIP, a non-profit transportation organization in Washington, found that 35 percent of major roads in New Jersey are in poor condition. An additional 41 percent ranked as medicore or fair. Only 24 percent were found to be in good condition.
Complicating matters is the fact that the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), the pot of money used to fix New Jersey's roads and bridges, is set to go bankrupt in June 2016 if no new revenue sources are identified. There's been talk for years of hiking the state's gas tax, but lawmakers have yet to act. Meanwhile, the state's roads continue to deteriorate thanks to age and the constant strain of traffic congestion.
One New Jersey transportation expert is very concerned about the current state of affairs, and said lawmakers have put off any serious attempt to properly fund the capital needs of the state's transportation system for years.
“The plan that Gov. Christie announced in 2010 really fell short by a long way of what our real needs were, and then it got dismantled as it was being implemented,” said Martin Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.
Robins said even if the gas tax is hiked, it won't make the state's transportation problems magically go away.
“We have lots and lots of needs that keep mounting up,” Robins said. “The problem is you can’t escape this, it’s a matter of physical decay. This is the moment of truth coming up for the Legislature and the governor to take seriously what really are our needs."
Robins notes we recently saw the formation of an organization called Forward New Jersey, which was devoted to solving this funding problem, but unfortunately those efforts have not borne fruit.
According to Robins, Christie appointed Jamie Fox to serve as the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) with the intention of having him negotiate a gas tax increase. Fox recently resigned.
"It makes you really worry about what might occur. This is going to be quite a crisis coming up,” Robins said.
There's a cap on the bonding available to the Transportation Trust Fund, so unless that's lifted by the Legislature, Robins said there will be no transportation program at all.
"They don't want to lift it, they just want the same old way of doing business,” Robins said.
A big part of the problem is the age of most of New Jersey's road, bridges and mass transit system.
“The system constantly needs to be upgraded. Our rail systems are legacy systems from the old railroads. There is need for new equipment. If we don’t get serious about funding, we’re going to be constantly retrograding the quality of our state and our economy,” Robins said.
And while Robins thinks the NJDOT is doing everything it can to patch the problems as they arise, there is simply not enough money to address everything.
And no one even knows how much money is really needed to properly maintain the state's transportation infrastructure to begin with.
“I am appalled that the NJDOT has not been charged by the governor with making that information available and to crank out reports and make everyone fully aware of what the problems are,” Robins said. “The people in charge are good professionals but they have not been instructed to tell the whole story to the public, and that is really a worrisome thing.”
The bottom line is simple, according to Robins.
“Transportation is vital to our state. We rely in so many ways on our transportation system, and it’s got to be first rate and something has been missed here in understanding its importance." Robins said. "What we are doing is edging towards a precipice and if we can’t solve the transportation funding problem in the very near future we will go into free fall. It’s time to face up to what the requirements are.”