The modern state DOT is by and large an institution created to build the interstate system and associated freeways. Most American roads were dirt until several decades into the 20th century, and the idea that we needed specialized agencies set up specifically to expand our road network didn’t take hold until the 1930s. The advent of large, specialized transportation really took off in 1956, with the creation of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
State DOTs were empowered and molded to focus on a single purpose: high-speed mobility. Engineers soon dominated planning in the U.S., and the influence of citizens, advocacy groups, and planners declined. Excited by opening the American landscape for travel, both transportation professionals and the nation at large ignored mounting evidence of the unintended consequences of this huge roadbuilding campaign.
With the task of building the interstates now complete and the accumulation of health, climate, social equity, and environmental issues too large to ignore, most DOTs — including NJDOT — realized they needed to change. Yet with no clear-cut vision of what to do next, it is difficult to resist the tendency to keep following the same beaten path.
But there is a way forward, and NJDOT can be a national model for leading the way. The talent, expertise, and the funding already exists, and our state is envied for its backbone of transit and surplus of attractive walkable communities.
New mission for NJDOT
Quite simply, the NJDOT must congratulate itself on a job well done in building the high-speed road network of the 20th century, and move to completing the local and multimodal network needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. It must now view its mission as building communities through transportation, instead of transportation through communities.
This would involve creating a truly sustainable transportation system that provides local, regional, and inter-regional accessibility at an affordable cost to families and businesses, while nourishing community needs for social and economic exchange. It would enhance New Jersey’s global competitiveness while making the benefits of our economy accessible to all. It would facilitate our ability to lead healthy, active lifestyles, while distributing transportation services equitably among all groups — the elderly, the young, and the physically disabled. In short, healthy transportation systems are the “bones” of our economy. In short, NJDOT can become a powerful force for supporting a more livable, productive, equitable, and healthy New Jersey.
How do we do this?
Develop new measures of success that emphasize societal and community goals while still honoring traditional mobility metrics. Over the years, both NJDOT and New Jersey Transit have piloted initiatives designed to broaden the impact of their programs beyond mobility. Although they never became mainstream, these successful projects can provide a good model for a renewed commitment moving forward.
Overhaul the planning/programming framework behind current transportation project delivery. Transportation investment must be made using a systems approach that integrates transportation and land-use planning at all levels of government, using a common set of principles and a focus on the entire transportation network rather than a single transportation project. Both NJDOT and NJ Transit need to move back into statewide leadership roles in shaping New Jersey’s land use.
NJDOT will need to accept the responsibility for “active transportation” (walking and biking) on all levels of the road and street system. As it is in most states, NJDOT only has responsibility for the state highway network, so it limits its efforts in supporting active transportation to those roads. Yet with few exceptions, most of the active transportation occurs on local roads. Since most New Jersey communities lack the capacity and expertise to identify, scope, plan, design, or construct successful biking and walking projects, NJDOT will need to assume a much larger sense of ownership and responsibility for assisting our communities. “Ownership” does not necessarily involve assuming jurisdiction for local streets, but it does involve offering leadership, technical assistance, and funding support.
NJDOT can become a center of excellence for the state. In many ways, it already serves as the de facto center of statewide transportation planning. For a few years, from 2003 to 2007, NJDOT was actually the largest source of integrated land-use planning in the state of New Jersey. This planning capacity and expertise positions NJDOT to help government at all levels solve a wide spectrum of problems. NJDOT can become the key to re-establishing the collaborative committee that was established during the McGreevey administration that aligned the activities of all the cabinet agencies toward achieving common goals.
Share real decision-making responsibilities with New Jersey communities. The ultimate customers of transportation investments are New Jersey communities. More direct engagement of customers in the process would democratize transportation decisions, and since the communities would play a much larger hand in shaping those investments, the persistent opposition to NJDOT that normally plagues delivery of its capital program would be minimized.
Gary Toth is the director of transportation at the Project for Public Spaces. He has 45 years experience in transportation engineering and planning, 34 of them with the New Jersey Department of Transportation.