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Garden State Continues Grappling With Traffic Woes

Wed December 14, 2005 - Northeast Edition
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SAYREVILLE, NJ (AP) During the day, Mike Beck drives backhoes and other heavy equipment. To get from his Toms River home to his job 60 mi. away in Middlesex Township, he steers an older Cadillac on the Garden State Parkway.

He has plenty of company on the roadways.

As Beck and thousands of New Jersey commuters grapple with some of the nation’s most clogged arteries, transportation authorities are trying to ease the strain through a variety of efforts to put more drivers onto buses and trains.

Despite a steady stream of road projects and increased ridership on trains and buses, traffic congestion is a constant headache in the Garden State. The average one-way commute time for New Jersey drivers is 28.5 minutes, more than four minutes longer than the national average of 24.3 minutes. Only New York (30.4) and Maryland (30.2) had longer average times, according to Census figures.

In a quarter-century of New Jersey driving, Beck has seen once-sleepy back roads become jammed. And although a $175-million twin of the soaring Parkway bridge over the Raritan River is to open next year, he is not optimistic that road projects can keep pace with burgeoning development.

“There’s so much construction going on, they can’t keep up with it,” Beck said. “I would say we need more mass transit.”

Experts agree, and are trying to add seats on buses and trains. Approximately eight of every 10 New Jersey commuters to New York take mass transit, and officials would like that number to grow.

To prevent statewide gridlock, future jobs should be created in places that are served by mass transit, according to Martin E. Robins, director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.

“You cannot build yourself out of congestion,” Robins said. “The highway system has grown, it has been expanded over the past 30 to 40 years, but it has barely stayed ahead of the volume.”

He said those jobs should be placed in transportation hubs such as Newark and Jersey City, as well as Elizabeth, New Brunswick and Secaucus, which just got a giant rail terminal and is soon to have an interchange to the New Jersey Turnpike, he said.

Robins also endorsed “transit villages,” already being developed in Rahway and other towns, which aim to build homes and revitalize neighborhoods around bus, rail or ferry stations. The state Department of Transportation and NJ Transit, the statewide rail and bus provider, participate in village development.

Transit hubs and villages aim to alleviate road congestion caused by the growth of suburban office parks, much of it in Bergen, Middlesex, Morris and Somerset counties, that are only reachable by auto, he said.

The other major sources of New Jersey traffic stem from a quarter-million commuters jostling to cross the Hudson River to New York City, or the 200,000 who struggle to get over the Delaware River to Philadelphia.

Those regions ranked 18th and 27th, respectively, among the large metropolitan areas for most congestion, costing a Newark-New York region driver 49 extra hours behind the wheel in 2003, and 38 extra hours for a Philadelphia-New Jersey region driver, according to an analysis by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.

To get more trains rolling into New York from New Jersey, authorities in both states propose a sweeping plan, costing more than $5 billion, that would add a third rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

A related proposal would take motorists off central Jersey roads by creating a new rail line to serve Monmouth, Ocean and Middlesex counties, and costing more than $600 million.

Both efforts remain in the early stages of planning and searching for funding.

Despite logging record numbers of train riders year after year, NJ Transit expects its volume will double over the next 20 years, said the agency’s chief planner, Richard T. Roberts.

The extra tunnel, as well as a new terminal near Penn Station in New York, would allow more than 50 trains an hour to enter Manhattan, up from 23 now, he said.

In the meantime, NJ Transit is adding seats to New York by getting its first double-decker cars this summer.

In the southern part of the state, the Delaware River Port Authority seeks to expand its PATCO train system to Gloucester County. A 20-mi. route would cost approximately $1.5 billion and would take approximately 33,000 commuters into Philadelphia, about the same number that ride the line from Camden County, according to John J. Matheussen, chief executive officer of the authority.

“It’s important for quality of life, the environment, and continued growth of our economy,” Matheussen said.

State Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere agrees road widening is no longer a solution, with the exception of projects on limited access toll roads, such as the Raritan Bridge twin for the Garden State Parkway, and the $1.3 billion widening of the New Jersey Turnpike between exits 8A and 6, which is to be finished in 2011.

“They are the perfect places to have widenings,” Lettiere said.

But on state highways, he would prefer to build an overpass or install computerize stop lights to improve traffic flow, rather than disrupting homes and businesses to add lanes.

The “smart” traffic lights would have sensors to determine if they need to change. Other lights, like some on Routes 38 and 70 in the Cherry Hill area, can be controlled from remote locations.

His department is getting involved with towns to encourage “grid” development to ensure that new neighborhoods are not isolated. This cheaply adds highway capacity by not requiring residents to drive onto a highway to get from one area to another, he said.

The technology to alleviate many traffic problems is available; money to buy it is not, Lettiere said.

“I need every nickel right now … just to keep roads and bridges together,” he said.

Officials are concerned because a prime source of money for road and rail projects, the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, is projected to run dry in June 2006, which Robins said would be “catastrophic.”

Three-fourths of the state’s gasoline tax of 14.5 cents a gallon goes toward the trust fund, but borrowing has outpaced the revenue, and legislators are unlikely to raise a tax during an election year.

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