Investing in Mass Transit Called Path to Prosperity in the Garden State

Forum participants cite economic benefits, cleaner environment, less congestion, higher property values

Senate President Stephen Sweeney and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg lead discussion on need to invest more state funds in improving mass transit and transportation infrastructure.
More efficient and direct commutes to work, increased property values in communities with train stations, and cheaper automobile-repair bills.

All of those things were identified yesterday by planning experts as likely outcomes of increased investment in transportation infrastructure in New Jersey.

But with Gov. Chris Christie seeking the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination and Democrats who control the state Legislature still tip-toeing around the issue of hiking the state’s gas tax, that investment remains uncertain.

If it comes, the experts predicted there would be more people taking a more convenient state mass-transit system to work, leaving the highways less clogged and pocked with less potholes, and the air less polluted with exhaust and carbon dioxide.

“It’s astounding what can be done if you put your mind to it,” said Tim Evans, research director for New Jersey Future.

Evans spoke yesterday during a roundtable discussion held in the State House that was organized by Senate Democrats as part of an initiative launched last month to explore the impact that more spending in areas like education and transportation could have on a state economy that’s still struggling to recover all of the jobs lost to the last recession.

The state fund that pays for road, bridge and rail projects throughout New Jersey is on course to run dry by the end of June 2016. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and other Democratic legislative leaders have said New Jersey needs to spend up to $2 billion annually on transportation infrastructure.

But doing so would likely mean raising the state’s 14.5-cent gas tax to bring in new revenue, an issue that for much of the year has been pushed to the backburner as Christie has prioritized his run for president and as lawmakers in the Assembly sought reelection.

Public opinion has presented another hurdle, with the latest Rutgers-Eagleton poll finding that a majority of state residents oppose increasing the gas tax.

Sweeney and other Democrats have taken the lead on the issue, though they’ve yet to put forward a concrete plan to renew the state Transportation Trust Fund by hiking the gas tax. During the roundtable discussion yesterday, Sweeney said that educating residents about the benefits of the broader investment in infrastructure is a key.

“This is something we wanted to shine a light on because we’ve got to get this done,” he said.

Towns depend on reliable rail service

In addition to hearing from planners like Evans, the event also featured comments from a number of mayors whose communities rely on downtown train stations to remain vibrant.

South Orange Village President Sheena Collum called the transportation issue for her community the “single largest concern” right now. South Orange is linked directly to New York by New Jersey Transit’s Morris and Essex Line.

“We are grabbing a lot of the New York economy,” Collum said. “Having young families relocate from New York.”

And Rahway Mayor Samson Steinman said tax revenue from development in his community that’s tied to its rail station on the busy Northeast Corridor line helps balance the municipal budget.

“It has worked very well, but we need the train station to be fully operable,” he said. “As the train station goes, so goes our city,” he said.

But the combination of increasingly unreliable service and trains already at capacity heading into New York means an uncertain future for the communities that are linked to Manhattan and other job centers by rail.

“When you have a failure on the Northeast Corridor, it’s epic for the people who are on that train,” said Peter Cammarano, the mayor-elect in Metuchen.

Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently reached an agreement on how the two states, the federal government and the Port Authority could split the funding for new tunnels linking New Jersey with Manhattan.

That agreement on what’s dubbed the Gateway project came after a series of commuter delays over the summer that were blamed on failing electrical wiring in the more-than-century-old tubes used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit.

Needed revenues hard to find

New Jersey Transit was also forced to raise fares and cut back some services earlier this year to close a budget deficit.

Lawmakers say $2 billion in annual transportation spending could produce a better New Jersey Transit, expanding light rail into place like Bergen and Gloucester counties, while also keeping roads and bridges in proper condition.

The increased investment in rail, if ultimately approved by Christie and lawmakers, would come at a good time given that interest in urban communities with walkable downtowns is rising, said Rutgers University professor Michael Lahr.

Young people are finding it harder to own cars and want to live in or near where they work. Meanwhile, older people are downsizing as their children move out of their large, suburban homes, he said.
“It’s important that we keep those things in mind,” said Lahr, who has conducted economic-impact studies showing a boost in home values tied to new transit projects in New Jersey.

As New Jersey offers tax incentives to entice companies to locate in so-called “transit villages,” Evans said the state should also be looking to expand rail capacity.

“The bad news is if we don’t have capacity to absorb all the new riders it results in false advertising,” he said.

Afterward, Sweeney pledged to continue making the case that the focus shouldn’t be only on how much more motorists might pay at the pump, but how their investment will benefit communities and the broader state economy.

“To me, it’s education,” he said. “This is a conversation we have to have.”