Advocacy Groups Urge NJ Turnpike Authority to Put the Brakes on $24B Capital Plan

Their message: The state doesn’t need more highways and higher tolls; it needs to focus funds on mass transit, clean vehicles and environmental justice
Credit: Erich Westendarp via Pixabay
Highway construction

The $24 billion in new spending on highway widening and other major capital projects that’s been proposed by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority should be shelved in favor of an approach that focuses more on mass transit and fighting climate change.

That was the message delivered on Monday by a number of prominent New Jersey advocacy groups that want to see the Turnpike Authority go back to the drawing board with its latest capital plan, which also calls for a series of toll hikes to be enacted on both the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway.

The groups released a report that suggested New Jersey could generate more than 1 million jobs by adopting a revised approach to infrastructure investment that balances transportation goals with the need to address environmental, social and economic-justice objectives. In an afternoon news conference, their representatives also said highway motorists have a vested interest in pursuing those types of goals.

“We can’t look at our transportation infrastructure in a vacuum,” said Janna Chernetz, deputy director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

More roads not the answer

“We can’t fight climate change by building more roads,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

Unveiled last month just as the coronavirus pandemic brought on a state of emergency across New Jersey, the Turnpike Authority’s $24 billion capital plan calls for more than 50 major projects to be undertaken on both toll roads in rolling, five-year increments.

The NJTA, which operates both the turnpike and parkway, is also seeking to hike turnpike tolls by 36%, and parkway tolls by 27%, to support the capital plan. In addition, the proposal calls for annual toll increases of as much as 3% to be enacted on both highways, starting in 2022.

The capital plan and the proposed toll hikes have drawn strong support from organized labor and the state construction industry. A high-ranking member of Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, state Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, has also pitched the capital plan as a potential source of economic stimulus amid the ongoing uncertainty caused by the still-unfolding pandemic.

But others have faulted the NJTA for advancing its plan during the pandemic, which has brought on strict social-distancing measures as Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has been urging people to stay home to prevent further spread of the disease.

The agency’s board is scheduled to hold a public meeting on Tuesday morning via phone, but the capital plan is not on the final agenda, according to NJTA spokesman Tom Feeney. It’s unclear right now when the capital plan and the associated toll hikes could be put up for a final vote.

More cars, more sprawl, more pollution …

The report released by the advocacy groups on Monday faulted the NJTA’s capital plan for devoting too many resources to highway-widening projects that they predict will generate increased traffic, sprawl and pollution. And that would come even as Murphy has put forward ambitious clean-air policies that are aimed at addressing the effects of global climate change.

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

Also faulted in the report was a lack of emphasis on charging stations for electric vehicles that the governor and lawmakers have been trying to encourage with tax credits and other recently enacted policies. The NJTA plan also pays little attention to the needs of the communities that are bisected by the two highways, the report said.

“Funding should be set aside in the budget to include bike and pedestrian improvements on projects where local bicycle and pedestrian safety and access will be affected,” the report said.

Instead of seeking to generate economic stimulus by widening highways, the groups’ representatives suggested the state could generate just as many new jobs under their plan, which calls for spending on only essential highway maintenance. Instead, the groups’ plan calls for the funding of long-ignored mass-transit projects, such as the planned expansion of light rail in to Bergen and Gloucester counties, and the building of a new trans-Hudson tunnel for commuter trains.

Chernetz — who Murphy nominated earlier this year to serve on New Jersey Transit’s board of directors — said the state already has a history of using highway tolls to fund mass-transit investment. She also urged Murphy to exercise his power to veto NJTA board-meeting minutes if the original plan eventually wins approval. That way, a new proposal can be drafted with input from a wider range of stakeholders, she said.

“This capital plan is irresponsible,” she said. “It is not in line with the state’s goals.”

Several Republican lawmakers have already come out against the NJTA’s plan, and a similar capital proposal that’s been put forward by the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the agency that operates the Atlantic City Expressway. But several liberal groups that typically support the governor’s proposals were among those joining Monday’s call to shelve the NJTA capital plan.

“The authority needs to go back to the drawing board,” said John Reichman, board member of the grassroots liberal group Blue Wave NJ.

“It’s very important that the Turnpike Authority slow down the process,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a group that advocates for and works with the state’s low-income residents.

Feeney, the NJTA spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment on the criticism lodged by the groups on Monday.

Asked if the governor agrees with the groups’ contention that the NJTA capital plan conflicts with his administration’s policy goals, including for clean air and electric vehicles, Murphy spokesman Jerrel Harvey said he “fully understands the need to strike a careful balance between the ambitious goals of the state’s Energy Master Plan and getting our infrastructure back on its feet after years — if not decades — of neglect.”

“The governor looks forward to supporting a capital plan that makes critical investments in the state’s transportation network, and not at the expense of environmental stewardship,” Harvey said.