By TOM DAVIS
Pay 500 percent increases at the toll booth now, officials say, or deal with what will be decades of increasingly long traffic jams and time-consuming train delays in New Jersey and New York City.
This is the tough choice facing both the region's price-conscious drivers this year and lawmakers who have long opposed toll hikes. It is a decision that may determine the fate of what could become the most expensive and transformative period in the region's transportation history.
With federal matching funds available in 2009 to pay for multi-billion-dollar improvements, New Jersey and New York City officials want a public already beset with rising gas prices and an economic downturn to now spend more than $10 billion to expand the region’s transportation infrastructure.
If they don’t, the region could lose the money – and forfeit its only chance to build a second commuter tunnel to Manhattan that would expand the area’s mass transit systems; fix bridges that are falling apart; and widen roads plagued with traffic delays that have tripled since 1982, New York and New Jersey officials say.
"We need to move quickly," Governor Corzine said.
CLICK PLAY to listen to Governor Corzine discuss the region's transportation future.
Both New Jersey and New York City face an uphill climb in convincing lawmakers and motorists who view rate hikes as wasteful, expensive and counterproductive solutions to problems – even as they pound their horns, wipe their foreheads and sweat through congestion that routinely backs up at the Hudson River crossings and on the major highways.
Commuters such as Rich Messner of Park Ridge say the cost of going to work and the stress of sitting in traffic, missing a bus or train and being late to work has gotten to be too much for a population that already struggles to afford high property taxes and tolls.
“I’m a taxpayer – I’m going to feel it in my wallet,” said Messner. “If you want to drive into city, you know how much it costs to park every day? It’s $60 to $120 just to protect your car. It’s horrible. It’s horrifying.”
Still, Governor Corzine and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have suggested that they may revive efforts to push for plans that have already failed to win support. This time, the two must present them in a way that the public finds more acceptable.
New plans may be developed
In New Jersey, Corzine has proposed a plan to raise tolls by 500 percent - or as much as $250 a month per driver - on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway through 2023 that would pay for transportation improvements and reduce the state's $34 billion debt.
In September, a letter the New Jersey Turnpike Authority sent to Corzine's office outlined a toll-hike plan that would pay for just capital projects on the turnpike and parkway. Turnpike tolls would increase by an average of 60 cents per passenger car in 2009, 90 cents more in 2012 and 30 cents more in 2023.
Parkway drivers would pay an average of 15 cents more in 2009, 25 cents more in 2012 and another 8 cents more in 2023.
Though toll-hike plans have failed to win legislative support in recent years, Corzine has not ruled out rolling out yet another new proposal that, at the very least, would eliminate the debt reduction component of his plan.
That element of his proposal drew criticism from lawmakers and transportation advocates who believe that any toll-funding proposal should solely go toward fixing New Jersey’s crumbling infrastructure.
"I think I have very little support for the breadth of the program," Corzine said. "Clearly there is less willingness to take on the debt reduction issue that I would think would be appropriate."
Corzine wants New Jersey to act soon – particularly on its plan to build a $7.2 billion rail tunnel – since other states have already begun lobbying for federal money that could be available when Congress considers renewing its 5-year, $286.4 billion transportation funding program early next year.
The Federal Transit Administration, in turn, wants the region to show it strongly supports the tunnel and prove that New Jersey and New York City can contribute financially - though the agency hasn't offered specifics - before construction costs shoot up and an environmental review of the project is completed by October.
So far, New Jersey has promised $500 million – though the commitment, officials say, is tentative until the state develops a stable funding source.
The Port Authority, an agency controlled by New York and New Jersey that manages bi-state road and rail connections, has approved up to $3 billion to pay for the tunnel project that is expected to completed by 2017. The same agency voted to increase tolls on the Hudson River crossings by $2 in January 2008.
"I've been pretty clear we're going to have to take steps to put ourselves into a position, first and foremost, for the safety of the public," the governor said. "We have crying needs to provide for safety on our bridges and highways and mass transit, so some kind of proposal with regard to infrastructure is just a necessary responsibility."
Indeed, the state says it has a wish list of projects that could benefit from a new funding system and ultimately serve the same purpose as the tunnel: Increase capacity for motorists and encourage commuters to use mass transit.
Those projects include:
– Widening the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway in the state’s central and southern regions at a cost of more than $2 billion;
– Opening the Northern Branch line that would connect rail passengers in Bergen County to Manhattan and cost ratepayers another $500 million;
– Improving bridges that bring traffic to New York – particularly the Pulaski Skyway and the Staten Island crossings – but are falling apart, state officials say. Replacement of the skyway could cost as much as $4 billion.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg floated a congestion pricing plan that – despite failing to win support in the state Legislature in April 2008 – could be revived by the time the federal government considers renewing its transportation funding program next year, the administration says.
The plan would have charged drivers $8 to enter Manhattan below 60th Street, raising as much as $500 million annually for mass transit improvements and expansion.
But the Bloomberg administration says it may either propose a modified plan, or bank on rising gas prices and recent toll hikes at the Hudson River crossings as factors that could convince lawmakers that congestion pricing is not as bad as it sounds.
Right now, the city’s bus and subways are not viable alternatives for many people who commute to Manhattan – but congestion pricing could be the funding source that’s needed in order to expand a crowded, aging and deteriorating transportation system, said Jason Post, a spokesman for Bloomberg.
“It still makes sense,” said Post, noting that high gas prices could influence more people to use mass transit. “Imagine how forward thinking it would be if we were to come up with something now.”
Though the Corzine administration has opposed congestion pricing, New York officials preach the need to work together because the heavy influx of Manhattan-bound commuter traffic shows how the region's network is interconnected.
"Bringing infrastructure up to a state of good repair – that all acts in concert to keep traffic flowing," said Ted Timbers, spokesman for the New York City Department of Transportation. "Improving mobility is certainly something we focus on. There is certainly not enough room to build more roads and streets."
Commuters remain skeptical
Officials, however, know they face an uphill climb because commuters – who have a strong influence on lawmakers and transportation watchdog groups – could still throw up a potential roadblock on the plans.
Tolls, motorists say, only make driving less affordable, and the plazas themselves hold up traffic that’s getting increasingly worse at Exit 15E on the New Jersey Turnpike and other interchanges.
Many find themselves spending too much time looking for ways around the traffic and the congested toll booths, and not enough time with family and friends.
“It’s not a pleasant thing, especially on a hot day,” said Kerri Smith of Newark, who often gets stuck at 15E. “I get off on the next exit [15X] and go on the streets because it won’t be too long.”
Other commuters say it’s not easy to switch from one transportation mode to the next.
For many, mass transit is not a viable option because it doesn’t take them where they want to go – particularly in southern New Jersey, where only one train line, between Atlantic City and Philadelphia, exists. Commuters also complain how there are no non-stop train lines that pass through Bergen and Passaic counties.
Indeed, NJ Transit – New Jersey’s agency that operates mass transit services – recently noted that the number of daily riders on the North Jersey Coast Line has increased only 1.5 percent since 1999. The rail service is the only line that connects North Jersey with the Jersey Shore.
Some drivers say they prefer taking their minivans and compact cars to work in New York City, or the sands of the Jersey Shore, because of the comfort and convenience.
"I hate public transportation," said Paola Galeano of Ridgewood. "I have a car so I don't have to wait around for a train to arrive. Even if they did raise the tolls, I would prefer to drive because I'm impatient."
Despite the addition of light rail and other modes of public transportation, trains and buses aren't very practical, commuters say.
Steve Carrellas, state coordinator for the National Motorists Association, said many people are moving their jobs from desks to cars as employers look to cut costs.
More in the workforce are relying on their car to get to appointments and do work at jobsites that are far away from train and busstops while they rely on laptop computers and cell phones for communication.
“If you look at the driving habits of the coming generation – it's the telecommuting thing – you'll see that many are still using their cars,” he said.
Commuters also question the sincerity of the New Jersey’s approach to solving traffic problems, noting that the state is expanding the turnpike and parkway – a move, they say, will encourage more traffic, more congestion and more pollution.
Zoe Baldwin, New Jersey coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, noted that the state’s transportation commissioner, Kris Kolluri, has said that widening and lengthening roads will encourage more suburban sprawl development to locate near the state’s highways.
“Everything is falling apart and the governor and the transportation commissioner are saying we need to do this?” Baldwin said. “That’s why it’s so bizarre.”
Rail advocates, meanwhile, believe both New York and New Jersey have offered proposals are incomplete. With thousands of jobs located on the east side of Manhattan, some are dumbfounded that the tunnel route won't bring them directly to Grand Central Station.
“They really have to think outside of the box and how this is going to serve the greatest amount of people,” said Leonard Resto, treasurer of the N.J. Association of Railroad Passengers. “It’s not going to give them a ton of capacity.”
State and Port Authority officials, however, say the spikes in traffic and the spate of recent accidents, delays and other projects show that a transportation overhaul is needed immediately – even if the goals are incomplete.
“We still need to take on the deficit of infrastructure,” Corzine said. “I think that’s for the safety and security of the public.”
Lawmakers, meanwhile, say they worry about the potential impact these projects will have on the region's drivers who already pay $8 to drive into Manhattan because of the $2 Port Authority toll hike on the Hudson River crossings.
Already, some supporters – such as Corzine himself – have suffered politically as they've struggled to convince the public and other lawmakers to come up with a funding source without drawing a backlash.
A Quinnipiac University in February found that 37 percent of voters approved of Corzine’s job performance, down from 46 percent in a December poll taken before the governor proposed the toll increases. The same poll said 73 percent of voters oppose significantly boosting highway tolls as a way to fund transportation.
Worried about their future, commuters say they're trying to find more work and recreational activities near where they live, saying the high cost of living for the average family has made city driving unaffordable.
"I used to drive into the city a lot, but with gas prices and the price of tolls going up, it's not worth it," said Armando Martinez of Little Ferry.
N.J. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Parlin, said toll hikes will likely have a "geographical bias" that would burden those who live near the toll roads. Instead, he believes the state should consider a public-private partnership to pay for the rail tunnel project.
"If we could get private capital to invest, we could save billions of dollars in state money," said Wisniewski, who is chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. "I think we need to start thinking of innovative ways."
Searching for a solution
Besides coming up with new plans for funding transportation improvements, New Jersey and New York now are scrambling for new ways to convince the public about the importance of investment before the potentially transitional moment in history passes them by.
Repeatedly, New Jersey and New York City officials – as well as supporters in Congress – have emphasized how a funding system that would include toll hikes would benefit New Jersey and New York. But they couch each pitch with a call for sacrifice and a cry for urgency.
“It’s all become a political given that mass transit needs in New Jersey have to be met – it can’t be simply punted down the road,” said Rep. Steve Rothman, D-Fair Lawn. “That’s if we want New Jersey to be a top tier state. Everybody has a story of delays involving getting into New York.”
Building a second, $7.2 billion commuter tunnel to Manhattan, for example, would provide a more direct, Manhattan-bound connection for Bergen and Passaic County commuters, New Jersey and New York City officials say. The cost could make it the most expensive transportation project in New Jersey history.
Widening New Jersey’s two largest toll roads would allow more space for cars that are often mired in hour-long delays on the way home from work or en route to the beach, Corzine has said.
The Corzine administration has pointed to a University of North Carolina at Charlotte study released in early 2008 that said congestion rates on typical commuter routes, such as the Lincoln Tunnel and Exit 15E on the New Jersey Turnpike, have nearly doubled over the past decade.
Volume on the Alfred E. Driscoll Bridge, the Garden State Parkway's gateway to the Jersey Shore, is expected to increase 32 percent by 2030, according to the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority. The agency notes that traffic volume on the Driscoll Bridge, which crosses the Raritan River, has increased 15 percent since 1997.
“We have to solve our imminent problems while having a long range plan,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-N.J. “Maybe having a gun to our head is what’s necessary.”