On a recent morning, Vitaliy Shakirov sat in his Buy The Cup coffee shop in the bucolic borough of Rocky Hill, waiting to sell his brews, buns, sandwiches, snacks, and newspapers.
He had opened at 5 a.m., as always. But time went on, and instead of a press of rush hour customers jostling in his cozy 400-square-foot establishment, there were just a few regulars, perched on tall chairs at a wall table, and a reporter (also a Rocky Hill resident who lives down the street) looking on and taking notes.
There was lots of good natured joshing between Shakirov and his regulars, but the store owner’s mind was elsewhere. “The sign doesn’t say that businesses are open down here,” Shakirov frowned.
The sign in question is on the western end of Rocky Hill’s main drag, known locally as Washington Street, historically as the Old Franklin To Georgetown Turnpike, and on New Jersey maps as Somerset County Route 518.
The sign is bolted to a sandbag-stabilized barrier placed next to the street’s Belgian block curbing. It says: “BRIDGE OUT 3/4 MILE AHEAD LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY”
Route 518 is part of a nearly straight east-west route running through Somerset, Mercer, and Hunterdon counties all the way to the Delaware River. But in Rocky Hill these days, the road is reminiscent of an old highway in the western United States, proceeding as much by habit as design through a town bypassed by the interstate highway system.
The closing of a state-owned bridge over the Delaware & Raritan Canal park at the eastern end of Rocky Hill was meant to be a summer project. But the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), which provides the monies for it and some 900 other bridge and roads projects in the state, was threatened with insolvency and suddenly closed by Governor Chris Christie’s executive order on June 30, effective July 8. There is no way of knowing when the project will be completed and this section of busy Route 518 reopened.
And throughout the state, the sight of idle construction equipment at silent construction sites and the frustrations of traffic backups caused by seemingly endless detours raise the question: Are we seeing the onset of the long-feared national infrastructure crisis?
“It’s now a visible proof of the infrastructure crisis that not only New Jersey but every state now faces,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the school of planning and public policy at Rutgers.
“This is the largest transportation and infrastructure shutdown I can remember in the state’s history and certainly the most threatening to the economy,” agreed Jeff Richardson, economic policy specialist at the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce in Trenton. “We are pushing for a reasonable and sensible funding solution. This has been crippling to some small businesses, as evidence shows.”
Morning commuters used to drive through Rocky Hill with selfish speed. But not all were in an aggravated rush. Over the years, many slowed down and stopped into Buy The Cup at 130 Washington Street. They came to appreciate the shop’s down home feeling, its coffee and buns, and the proprietor’s neighborly but low key Eastern European style. And they returned regularly.
But in addition to speeding cars, there were brutally loaded dump trucks and schedule-making local delivery tractor trailers making punishing trips over Washington Street/Route 518 and its bridges.
How many? The most recent New Jersey Department of Transportation study, completed in September, 2015, calculated an average annual daily traffic (AADT) figure for this section of Route 518 of 4,660 vehicles (cars and trucks combined) going westbound and 4,692 vehicles eastbound.
These 24-hour figures multiply into an astonishing estimated 3,413,480 vehicle passages on this two-lane country road each year.
Not surprisingly, the wood-planked bridge on 518 over the Delaware & Raritan Canal badly needed replacement. The job was scheduled for July and August. This necessitated closing Route 518 at that point and detouring traffic around town.
Then came a political impasse over the Transportation Trust Fund, more formidable than any concrete road barrier.
Although Route 518 itself and a bridge over the Millstone River (which runs here roughly parallel to the canal) are maintained by Somerset County, the canal bridge is within the confines of the Delaware & Raritan Canal state park. But, as long predicted, the TTF’s obligations to state roads and bridge projects began far outstripping the revenue it receives from gasoline sales taxes. On June 30, declaring that bold action was needed before the fund lacked even the resources for emergency repairs, Gov. Chris Christie issued Executive Order 210, directing “an orderly halt” to some non-emergency TTF projects.
A last-minute legislative deal to raise New Jersey’s gasoline tax (at 14.5 cents per gallon the second lowest in America after Alaska) by 23 cents to a total of 37.5 cents stalled when the Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled legislature couldn’t agree on specific offsetting tax relief in other areas. So there the matter rests, with accusations of irresponsible lack of cooperation traded across the political aisle.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Department of Transportation “has responded to a number of emergency calls since the shutdown began,” wrote D.O.T. communications director Stephen Schapiro in an E-mail. He cited work on a rain-damaged bridge to reopen busy Route 202 in Bernardsville, as well as “numerous emergency responses to repair traffic signals or street lights, fix malfunctioning traffic signals, repair guide rails damaged by accidents, repair sinkholes, and remove downed trees.”
The physical halt on TTF projects occurred on July 8. But the Route 518 bridge project had already begun at the end of May with temporary lane closures prior to the full detours on July 6. State engineers determined that deterioration of the old span was too advanced to safely reopen it. So when the TTF shut down, the concrete barriers — and the detours — remained in place.
As Shakirov explained in his accented English, his previous morning rush hour sales pattern was “at six o’clock it’s starting, then nine very active. Now there’s really no active hours. Now it’s straight through just one-two customers, one-two customers.”
He frowned, still stoic but shaking his head slightly. “Last year I’m hitting record sales,” he said. “Until the bridge closed.”
How much has business been off since then? “Forty percent, consistently,” he replied.
And how long did it take for this plunge? “It was almost the next day.”
Some customers, he said, have made an effort to stop by and apologetically explain their sudden absence. “They say the bridge is pushing them in a different direction.”
Shakirov, age 30, was born in Kazakhstan when it was still part of the former Soviet Union. His father was a factory worker (who died when Vitaliy was seven) and his mother a school teacher. He attended college in his native country and was employed for a time in a casino as a dealer (where, perhaps, his friendly but often straight-faced expression greatly helped him). He later worked maintaining equipment at a high-tech company.
He emigrated to America 10 years ago, first settling in Houston. Then he relocated to New York City, where he networked with Russian expatriates. Someone told him about a job in New Jersey. (“They have a huge community in New York, it was very easy to get it,” he said.)
The position was at a coffee shop in Pennington. The owner also had Buy The Cup in Rocky Hill. “He closed that one and he wanted to sell this one, so I bought it,” said Shakirov, who became a resident of nearby Montgomery Township.
That was in 2010. About two years ago, Shakirov invested in major store renovations. He improved the decor with new woodwork and cheery paint tones. Faux-antique coffee-themed framed art now share the walls with Montgomery High School softball and lacrosse 2016 season schedules and other community-friendly notices.
He increased accessible counter space and added the sideboard seating. Perhaps most importantly, he opened up the central floor area, easing traffic flow when customers come in from the commuter traffic.
Today, in the nearly empty room, one customer guffawed, “It ain’t doin’ him much good right now!”
Shakirov maintained his straight face at this jibe, seemingly unperturbed. “It definitely turned around the business. I don’t regret it.”
This turn-around lifted gross annual sales into the range of $250,000, he said. “Last year I hit the skies with the sales. And this year it’s going right in the basement.”
Many Buy The Cup regulars and New Jersey residents in general see conspiratorial political agendas in the TTF freeze. (The topic has been dominating morning call-ins to NJ 101.5 radio; the station is taking a fierce anti-gas tax stance, its website listing what it says is government budget fat that could be painlessly trimmed to refill the TTF.) Whether or not such speculations are valid, the timing of it all — the canal bridge shutdown starting on July 6, then the construction work itself shutting down completely just two days later — has left politicos in Trenton open to hostile mutterings.
“That was all planned,” said one Buy The Cup regular during a reporter’s visit. “You can’t tell me it wasn’t.”
“It involves money somehow,” theorized another.
“They did it on purpose!” Shakirov agreed, now becoming visibly angry.
“The contractor and the government both screwed up,” suggested another regular.
“They’re going to have to finish this job!” Shakirov declared.
Bobby Beasley of Kingston, who works in excavation and is an avid weight trainer and runner, came in from his morning jog. Although Beasley doesn’t see conspiracies in all this, he agrees that the state government “should at least have finished what they started.”
“It affects me a lot, too,” Beasley added. “Especially my wife, who has to leave an hour earlier.”
She works at the ShopRite in Hamilton; ordinarily her drive from Kingston to Route 1 would be simple and quick. Now she’s forced into backups with hundreds of other drivers detouring around the Route 518 blockage in Rocky Hill.
Rivaling the intensity of conspiracy theories among the residents is a fear, now an almost palpable growing panic, of what it will be like in September when vacations are over and the roads hold a full volume of commuters and school buses.
“It’s all the congestion around Forrestal Village and the roads leading to Route 27,” Beasley explained. “I can’t imagine what will happen when school starts. It was bad enough [before the shutdown]. Laurel Avenue is packed in the mornings.”
Beasley paid, said goodbye, and left. Then silence, except for the swipe-pat of Shakirov buttering buns, the hum of coolers holding sodas and sandwiches, and the scratch of a reporter scribbling notes.
Many Rocky Hill residents welcome the respite from traffic noise, and the closed eastern end of Washington Street has become something of a pedestrian mall. Access on foot to the popular D&R Canal park tow path is still possible. Residents gather in the early summer evening for walking, jogging, and biking, casually walking down the middle of the closed eastern end of Washington/518.
Done with his prep chores this morning, Shakirov sat at the closed cash register. He yawned and looked down, his cell phone cradled by one hand, his head by the other.
But some regulars began to arrive, at one point even reaching a momentary morning record of six customers at one time. Michael Giambra, a Rocky Hill resident and insurance underwriter for Chubb, arrived carrying his 16-ounce thermal cup, which he filled with coffee from the containers with obviously long practice.
“I like to support the local businesses,” Giambra said. “I feel badly for the guy. And for the contractors who are sitting around doing nothing. They all pay their taxes, but that’s politics.”
Meghan Colarusso came in between her workout at a nearby gym and driving to work in Princeton. “It’s pretty sad,” she said. “The traffic is ridiculous. It’s changing my morning routine.”
It’s also affecting routine commerce, Colarusso added: “A colleague of mine had an appointment to meet someone at One53 [the Rocky Hill destination restaurant] to discuss business, but he couldn’t make it in time because of a traffic backup. The next day he said to me, ‘Something must have happened!’ He thought it was an accident. I told him, No, it’s that way every day now.”
Another customer, Jenn Berger of South Brunswick, drives to her job as a program manager at Bloomberg Global Data, two miles west of Rocky Hill on Route 518. But after work she picks up her child who attends a school in Forrestal Village.
“I did the math,” Berger said. “A standard commute is 13 minutes to Forrestal Village. If River Road [County Road 605, which meets with Route 27 at a traffic light outside Kingston] is not busy, it’s now 25 minutes. If it’s backed up, it could take 45 minutes. Every day I check Google Traffic to see if there’s a backup. I once took Harrison Street. That took more than an hour! I never did that again.”
Berger also expressed concerns about critical delays that first responders might encounter during an emergency. The Rocky Hill Borough Council raised this serious issue in a resolution, noting that “Rocky Hill and Montgomery first aid squads must add between 9 and 25 minutes per call to reach University Hospital at Princeton and even more if it is a trauma requiring RWJ Hospital in New Brunswick. Plans for a three-week closure were put in place but an indefinite closure puts the lives of Rocky Hill and Montgomery residents in danger.”
The loyalty shown Vitaliy Shakirov and his shop is touching and genuine. One regular named Jim (who asked to be identified only by his first name), is retired from a Trenton-based vending machine business. He resides in nearby Franklin — that is, “nearby” as the local birds fly but not as area residents must now drive. Jim, who helped Shakirov during his renovation project, used to motor straight over the Route 518 canal bridge and arrive at Buy The Cup in about 90 seconds. Now, forced to detour around through Kingston, it takes him about 15 minutes. But he visits Shakirov faithfully.
“He’s a friend of mine,” Jim said. “He came here for the American dream and now the politicians are shooting him down.”
The morning joshing went on, along with the morning joe. “Since you’ve got a lot of time on your hands now,” another regular teased, “you should join the volunteer fire department.”
“You think this is funny?” Shakirov came back, in his stoic, low key demeanor. But there was hurt in his voice.
“It’s definitely having an alarming impact on the businesses in town and on its residents that is ongoing,” said Rocky Hill mayor Jeff Donahue. He said that Rocky Hill was working through “other channels” to get the bridge project restarted. (He declined to comment on specifics, citing the highly politicized nature of the TTF shut down.)
Soon after the detour went into effect, Donahue joined with representatives of Franklin, Montgomery, and Princeton to resolve what they considered NJ DOT’s “unworkable” initial plans that, they said, were not resolving traffic flows nor safety issues caused by commuters being diverted onto narrower residential byways.
Another Rocky Hill resident is observing the situation with both a local and a professional eye. Susan Bristol of SPB Architecture LLC is an adjunct professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology and a licensed professional planner with an interest in public works.
“The relief from the traffic on 518 is a reminder of how bad it’s gotten on that road,” Bristol said. She too criticizes how the shutdown has been handled so far. “In regional planning, you don’t want to have multiple [road] projects going on at the same time,” she said. “There are usually limited alternative routes. But this executive shutdown [of the TTF] doesn’t take into account anything in the region. There aren’t any alternatives in the mix.”
Princeton mayor Liz Lempert knows about this problem and how it can affect local residents, drivers, and businesses.
In February a tractor trailer sideswiped the side parapets of the venerable bridge over Stony Brook on Route 206 in Princeton dislodging many of the stones. Temporary repairs were made quickly. But an examination by divers of the foundations of the span (which was constructed in 1792) revealed that more significant maintenance shouldn’t be delayed much longer. “It had been classified as ‘structurally deficient’ for several years,” Lempert said.
Because Route 206 is a state road, the Stony Brook bridge renovation project was eligible for Transportation Trust Fund monies. But there was a big Catch 22 for Route 206: “The work wasn’t started because the major detours would be needed, and one would involve Carter Road,” Lempert explained. And a state bridge replacement on Carter — funded by the TTF — was underway. Now that project is halted like the Route 518 canal bridge, with heavy equipment also sitting next to a partially demolished span.
“We wanted to start by early August to finish before early December,” Lempert said, adding somewhat ominously, “We just have to hope there are no other problems between now and then.”
She added, “It creates a cascading effect that affects our quality of life and the costs of doing business. It goes to show that it is a network and we’re all dependent on it. It may not be a road right in your neighborhood, but at some time you’re going to be driving on it.”
“It’s incredibly frustrating that everyone knew the fund was going to run out of money on June 30th,” Lempert said. “There didn’t seem to be the political will to make the tough choices to keep the fund replenished. Although no one likes to raise taxes, we have to raise the money to keep the roads and bridges working.”
And there are direct effects on the regional economy, said Rutgers’ Hughes. Also the author of New Jersey’s Postsuburban Economy, Hughes has served on several New Jersey governors’ advisory committees, including the Commission on Jobs, Growth, and Economic Development in 2002.
Hughes noted that earnings expected by construction companies and their hourly employees, vendors and material providers, and engineering firms are not being paid, and thus don’t get back into the local economics.
Obvious enough, but there’s more. Motorists diverted from their usual roads are likely to stop patronizing businesses along those routes. In most cases, said Hughes, a small business will “never really make up the dollars that are lost.”
The implications for stores like Buy The Cup are disturbing. Customers for non-perishable goods might tolerate back ordering. But even if the canal bridge project were suddenly restarted and Route 518 reopened after only 90 days of being closed, returning customers won’t walk into Shakirov’s shop, say hello again, and then immediately purchase 90 cups of coffee.
“How much productivity is lost is another issue,” Hughes continued. “There’s a productivity loss due to the time consumed by a longer commute that’s difficult to estimate.”
The best research on this problem is probably being done by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI — http://tti.tamu.edu/). The TTI’s Urban Mobility Report tracks traffic flow and congestion in 439 locations. TTI estimates that, due to increased volume and backups, Americans are spending 4.8 billion hours on the road and buying 1.9 billion additional gallons of gas for a total “congestion cost” of $101 billion.
Based on the TTI work, there are predictions that by 2020 our national congestion cost will grow to $192 billion. Delays will grow to 8.3 billion worker hours, wasted fuel increase to 3.8 billion gallons, and the average commuter’s congestion cost grow to $1,100.
Not surprisingly, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association is decrying the hold on New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund projects. But a recent report by Alison Premo Black, ARTBA senior vice president and chief economist, also raises alarms for workers outside its membership.
“As the shutdown continues,” she wrote, “the cost could grow to as high as $9 million per week in lost sales, wages, and economic activity throughout the state.” In addition to some 1,700 idled construction workers, Black calculates that another 1,500 jobs — in retail, real estate, warehousing and transportation, manufacturing, and various service industries — could be affected.
Professor Hughes of Rutgers wonders whether the Route 518 closure will change consumer habits to the detriment of small businesses in Rocky Hill besides Buy The Cup. For example, he said, “if I want to go to the Rocky Hill Inn, I might decide, ‘The trip is too inconvenient now, so I just won’t go there.’”
Fortunately, the restaurant isn’t having this problem. Rocky Hill Inn manager Kelly Kolbjornsen reports that it’s still considered a dining destination by customers. “We’re not seeing a major falloff in business,” she said.
But, she said, the restaurant’s staff is now spending more of its time dealing with anxious inquiries. For example, one woman has booked a September bridal shower party for her daughter and is concerned about how her guests, who are coming from multiple directions, will find their way to the Inn.
Other customers are asking how much traffic there is on a given day, are there any delays, and the big one: when will the bridge be reopened? Said Kolbjornsen: “When I tell them we don’t know when the bridge will be reopened, they say, ‘That’s not good,’ and I say, ‘That’s how we feel, too.’”
But local hopes were raised this past week by major construction activity at the bridge site. Reports circulated rapidly, expectantly. Men! Trucks! Equipment! Noise! Lights!
“Someone said they’re working on the bridge again,” said Vitality allowing himself an expression of the slightest optimism.
But the work wasn’t being done on the state-owned D&R canal bridge. Instead, the action was limited to the neighboring bridge over the Millstone River, maintained by Somerset County. Brian Maurer, Somerset’s principal bridge engineer, said that county workers and an on-call private contractor were taking advantage of the road closure to remove trees jammed under the span by recent floods, to resurface its roadway and even do structural repairs.
Last Wednesday, August 17, Gov. Christie issued an executive order freeing money from the general state budget for emergency road and rail work. But it was unclear if the canal bridge would be named an emergency project, as local mayors are strongly urging, to restore quick access for fire trucks and ambulances.
And the pain continued in Rocky Hill. As of Monday, August 15, Shakirov was “laying off everybody. I’m going back to [closing at] 3 o’clock.”
“Everybody” meant two part-time workers who used to take over in the afternoons and on weekends. Their total combined employment was between 40 and 50 hours per week. “One was laid off as soon as they closed the bridge,” he said. “The second laid off Saturday. It’s definitely because of the bridge.”
Now Vitaliy Shakirov has no employees and 15 fewer business hours per week. Small statistics in the greater economic fallout from the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund crisis, but more bitter dregs for Buy The Cup.