Progressive Leaders Urge Gov Murphy to Pause $16 Billion Highway Widening Plan in Midst of Pandemic


Today, elected officials and a wide range of progressive groups held a virtual press conference asking the Murphy Administration to pause consideration of spending $16 billion to widen the NJ Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. Transportation and environmental advocates also released an alternative plan to spend the funds on mass transit and fix it first projects to create thousands more, high paying union jobs, reduce traffic congestion, and achieve rather than contradict the Governor’s clean air and energy goals. Rail and Road to Recovery highlights 27 unfunded but needed mass transit projects, totaling over $25.8 billion that would create 1.28 million jobs, and estimates well over an additional $10 billion are needed to repair the state's existing road and bridge network.     

The leaders said the Governor has exhibited bold and decisive leadership in dealing with the Covid-19 emergency and set the ambitious goal of reaching 100% clean energy by 2050. Unfortunately, at a time that calls for bold and inclusive thinking from all areas of state government, the NJ Turnpike Authority (NJTA) appears to have misread the moment. The plan not only does not solve transportation needs, but also conflicts with the Governor’s jobs, climate and clean energy agenda.

In March, just as the spread of COVID-19 was accelerating, NJTA released a $24 billion spending plan that was developed with no meaningful opportunity for public input and provides scant details. Two thirds of the spending would widen the Garden State Parkway and NJ Turnpike projects. No money is to be spent on mass transit or electric vehicle infrastructure.

“This pandemic has given all of us an opportunity to revisit our priorities. This might be a really good place to start. This $24 billion will determine what kind of transportation infrastructure New Jersey will have for the rest of the century. We have to invest in mass transit now. We need expanded light rail, two new rail tunnels under the Hudson and improved service on NJ Transit. Road widenings will not solve our state’s transportation woes,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.

“Although difficult to find any grace in the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s given us a window to see how the air can be cleared when automobiles travel is significantly less,” said Asm. John McKeon (D-27).As we work towards the Governor's 100% clean energy by 2050 goal, I would hope the administration would consider alternatives to how our precious resources are being focused on traditional modes of transportation and consider shifting towards more ecologically friendlier options.”

"As a representative of one of the most diverse counties in the state, the health and well-being of my constituents has always been my highest priority. In this immensely challenging time, ensuring people have clean air to breathe and access to safe and efficient public transit is more important than ever,” added Union County Freeholder Rebecca Williams. “It's important that any major investment plan in our state takes in into account the views of communities in need and considers how each dollar can build a more sustainable and inclusive New Jersey."

“At a moment that so many New Jersey residents are focused on the physical and economic survival of their families and communities, the Turnpike Authority's rush to push a narrowly focused $24B spending plan and expansion is misguided at best, and could potentially cause long-term damage by allocating resources that need to be carefully considered as the state likely heads toward one of its worst financial crises in generations,”  said Kevin Brown, NJ State Director and Vice President of 32BJ SEIU. “We urge the NJTA to slow down their planning process, and work with relevant agencies like NJ Transit and DEP to figure out what's in the best interest of our residents' transportation, climate and economic needs, now and down the line.

“Despite its enormous price tag, the highway widenings will provide New Jerseyans with little or no long-term benefit.  While NJTA claims that the widenings will reduce traffic congestion,  the evidence suggest the opposite -- study after study shows that highway widening, particularly in urban areas, only provides temporary relief from congestion. Without additional mass transit capacity, it leads to “induced demand” with the widened highways quickly filling to capacity,” said Marcia Marley, President, BlueWaveNJ.

“This pandemic has exposed long standing inequalities, devastating the most vulnerable among us in both health and economic terms. If we are to survive and rebuild safely, any new tax revenues need to address these inequalities. A road toll tax hike should pay for protective and cleaning equipment for transit workers, help keep fares low and expand options for those reliant on public transportation, and fund essential repairs to our most traveled streets. It shouldn’t be spent on non-essential projects. To survive and rebuild safely, we need to completely rethink what priorities we fund,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, Associate Director, NJ Citizen Action.

“The plan will lead to more vehicles, more greenhouse gases and more deadly pollution, which will disproportionately affect low-income workers, immigrants and people-of-color.  New research from Harvard University shows long term exposure to air pollution directly increases COVID-19’s death rate and  that poor air quality in urban neighborhoods is currently leading to more deaths from COVID-19 in vulnerable communities.  These are the very same people who are also impacted first and worst by the climate crisis and unhealthy air. These two crises are intertwined,” said Kim Gaddy, Environmental Justice Organizer and Newark resident, Clean Water Action.

“The plan conflicts with the Governor’s clean energy policies; the goals of the state’s Energy Master Plan which includes the reduction of emissions from vehicles that account for the largest source (40.6%) of New Jersey’s net greenhouse gas emissions; and the easing of environmental burdens on vulnerable communities. NJTA’s plan contradicts Murphy’s Executive Order 100 which calls for the integration of climate change in all future state policies and infrastructure investments, including the State’s Energy Master Plan (EMP), Global Warming Response Act, and electric vehicle and charging station mandates,” said Doug O’Malley, Director, Environment New Jersey.   

We can have a win-win-win situation by taking the money from the NJ Turnpike and GSParkway widening and building mass transit. This Plan will reduce traffic, air pollution, and create more jobs for our economy. This alternative will help build a fairer, better and brighter New Jersey. There will be additional jobs that will focus on transit and transit development that will continue to grow our economy while reducing pollution,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The NJTA plan is a throw back to the 1960s. History shows the more you widen roads the more traffic and pollution increases. We have an alternative, we need to expand mass transit and fix it first. This plan is a better option that will promote a greener transit future.”   

NJDOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti also attempts to justify the NJTA plan by saying that it would be an immediate economic stimulus. This argument does not hold water when it comes to the road widening. These are long term projects. NJTA should first proceed with  shovel-ready repair projects that could put people  immediately back to work.   

Longer term, fix-it-first and mass transit projects would create more well paying, union jobs than road widening. Smart Growth America’s “Recent Lessons from the Stimulus: Transportation Funding and Job Creation” found public transportation investments generate 31% more JOBS, and repair work on roads and bridges generates 16% more JOBS, per dollar than new bridge and road construction. 

Rail and Road to Recovery sets forth the proper investments needed to attain economic, health and climate goals of the state. The projects outlined in the plan will increase capacity, improve reliability, and expand the reach of New Jersey’s mass transit system. Amtrak’s Gateway Program includes a pair of new tunnels under the Hudson River, for which New Jersey’s share of the project will cost $7.25 billion. Providing a one-seat rail ride into Manhattan for Bergen County and Raritan Valley commuters will cost an additional $1.55 billion. According to APTA, for every $1 billion invested in transit, 49,700 jobs are created on average. The benefits of these major projects are far greater than highway widenings, which produce fewer jobs and provide no substantial congestion relief.

NJTA’s plan also doesn’t take getting the state’s roads and bridges into a state of good repair seriously --  36% of the state’s highways are deficient (rough and/or distressed), 529 bridges are structurally deficient and 2,357 are in need of repair. The price tag for unfunded fix it first is over $10 billion – over $8.6 billion for bridges and $679 million for just the top 500 state road projects over the next few years which doesn’t even include needed repairs to the far larger network of local and county roads.

Electric vehicle charging stations also need to be a part of NJTA's capital plan. The passage into law this January of the electric vehicle omnibus bill (S2252/A4839) laid out a vision of electrifying our major roadway corridors with both the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway being the most obvious target roadways. Every rest stop on both roadways should have full access to Direct Current Fast Current (DCFC) fast charging stations, which can charge electric vehicles as quickly as 15 minutes. The infrastructure needs to be designed to handle the highest anticipated high traffic days, and should include at least 10 chargers per rest stop.  The total cost for installing the chargers and full needed infrastructure would be $35 million.

The leaders concluded that the Governor should intervene, including vetoing board minutes, to get NJTA to extend the period of public review on its capital plan, engage environmental justice communities, and coordinate with the Department of Transportation, NJ Transit, the BPU, DEP, and other relevant agencies to ensure that our money is best spent to meet the State’s transportation, climate, economic and  environmental justice goals.

“The NJTA 20 year capital plan is out of line with the state’s economic, climate and transportation goals. The NJTA must immediately rescind it’s proposed plan and return only when it appropriately matches present and future needs,” said Janna Chernetz, Deputy Director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “New Jersey can no longer continue to plan in a vacuum. New Jersey must reconsider its transportation investment priorities to achieve its urgent economic, climate and energy goals. 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. This is an opportunity to make New Jersey a healthier and more sustainable place to live and do business.”

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Amy Goldsmith