A new contract for preliminary work on widening a section of the New Jersey Turnpike in South Jersey has renewed attacks from critics who say the state should not be making it easier for people to drive cars while it is trying to drive down greenhouse-gas emissions.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority on March 23 awarded a $48 million contract to AECOM, a multinational engineering firm, for environmental studies and permitting, the latest stage in a multiyear plan to widen the turnpike on a 34-mile stretch between exits 1 and 4, a project that is estimated to cost $1.1 billion. The highway would be widened from two to three lanes in each direction.
The work is among 14 projects to widen sections of the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway under a $24 billion capital program announced by the turnpike authority last year.
The South Jersey widening project is at least five years away from the start of construction, and must undergo public hearings before any ground is broken, so it’s too early to say whether a wider highway would increase emissions, said Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the authority.
“The process of studying the impacts, defining the purpose, and determining the scope is just beginning,” he said in a statement. “This is pre-preliminary engineering. The Authority is still a couple of years away from public hearings, and the earliest construction could start would be about five years from now.”
Generating more traffic
Critics say widening roads in an attempt to ease congestion ends up generating more traffic and is at odds with Gov. Phil Murphy’s Energy Master Plan which aims, among other things, to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled.
In mid-March, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a Canadian research group, issued the latest report, showing that increasing road capacity just encourages car use at the expense of other forms of transportation that are environmentally less damaging.
“Adding capacity generates traffic, which leads to renewed congestion with higher traffic volumes, and more automobile-oriented transport and land use patterns,” the paper said. “This cycle continues until road capacity expansion costs become unacceptable.”
The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit that works to ease commuting, eliminate traffic deaths and meet climate goals in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, is urging Murphy to halt plans to widen major highways like the turnpike, and spend the money instead on improving mass transit and fixing existing infrastructure.
“Road widening is very costly, and given the different needs in terms of shoring up its transportation network, these dollars would be better spent on expanding New Jersey Transit,” said Janna Chernetz, Director of New Jersey Policy for the campaign. “You need to offer people an alternative so that they get out of their vehicles.”
Perpetuating the state’s ‘car culture’
Road widening is at odds with the state’s Energy Master Plan which aims to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles and increase electrification for both personal vehicles and mass transit, she said, arguing that the program would perpetuate New Jersey’s “car culture.”
“It’s absolutely contrary to our climate goals, especially the Murphy administration which wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which is the leading cause of emissions in the state,” she said.
The energy plan, issued in 2019, identified transportation as emitting 42% of the state’s net greenhouse-gas emissions, making it the biggest single source, and calls for the sector to be “almost entirely decarbonized” by 2050. It cited a study by the American Lung Association saying that pollution in New Jersey from motor vehicles cost $4.6 billion in health and climate impacts in 2015.
In February, Murphy announced $100 million for electrification of transportation sources including school buses, garbage trucks, and delivery vehicles, especially in environmental-justice areas where poor and minority groups are disproportionately affected by poor air or water quality. The money came from New Jersey’s return to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and its share of the proceeds from the Volkswagen settlement stemming from the carmaker’s emissions cheating.
The turnpike authority’s capital program includes a project to widen 27 miles of the Garden State Parkway between interchanges 98 and 125 from five or six lanes to six or seven lanes in each direction, at a cost of $1.35 billion. Another project would widen 12 miles of the parkway from interchanges 142 to 154 from four lanes to six in each direction, at a cost of $2.5 billion.
On the turnpike, the program includes a project to double the number of lanes from two to four in each direction on a three-mile section crossing Newark Bay, involving the replacement or widening of three bridges and the construction of a fourth bridge, all at the cost of $3.3 billion.
Widening 100 miles of roadway
In all, about 100 miles of roadway would be widened, and none of the projects includes the addition or expansion of mass transit, said the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, in a presentation to the turnpike authority last year.
“While road widenings relieve congestion initially, it is proven that widenings will eventually lead to more driving and result in the same congestion the widening was meant to alleviate,” the campaign said.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said widening the turnpike in South Jersey would encourage development on greenfield terrain as well as failing to relieve congestion. “When you widen roads, you increase traffic and just move the bottleneck from one place to another,” he said. He predicted that backups will just create bigger holdups at the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
All the widening projects together would add at least 454 lane miles and increase capacity by almost 1 million vehicles an hour, Tittel said, citing data on vehicle miles traveled from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Pete Kasabach, executive director of the nonprofit New Jersey Future, said there is a “disconnect” between the road-widening program and the Energy Master Plan, which in part reflects a failure by the Department of Transportation to reconcile its plans with those of the governor’s office.
“The Department of Transportation’s capital spending plan is like a battleship. It’s moving in one direction, and it’s extremely difficult to get it moving in a different direction,” he said. ”It could be taking a much bigger lead on reducing greenhouse gases and vehicle miles traveled.”
Neither Murphy’s office nor the Department of Transportation responded to requests for comment on whether the Energy Master Plan is consistent with the road-widening program.