Jack Lettiere, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, aims to leverage DOT dollars in new ways. Rather than pour money into constructing wider and wider highways to cure congestion, the DOT wants to get involved in municipal land planning. It also wants citizens to get out of their cars and onto bicycles, buses, and their own two feet. "This is a new way of doing business," says Lettiere.
Without a lot of fanfare so far, Lettiere has launched New Jersey Future in Transportation (NJFIT). He will discuss it at Raritan Valley Community College on Friday, October 7, at 8:30 a.m. and at the Middlesex County Planning Board on Friday, October 14, in a day-long session that starts at 8:15 a.m. The DOT will present its case to Mercer County on Friday, November 4, at 8:15 a.m. at the College of New Jersey.
The DOT reveals its opposition to current land use development trends on its website: "While congestion levels are rising, our transportation funds are shrinking and land prices are soaring, further limiting our ability to meet the demand for infrastructure capacity."
"Realizing that we have come to a fork in the road, we decided to look at the root causes of the problem to see why we have this cycle of: widen highways, congestion, and then widen again," writes Lettiere in a letter to citizens posted on the website (www.nj.gov/transportation/works/njfit). He notes that integrating land use and transportation planning will support the Governor’s Smart Growth program: "We are encouraging towns to not only rely on the state’s system of highways and roads, but also to look to their local network of roads to handle some of their traffic."
Apparently NJDOT is going to look favorably on municipalities that have aligned their master plans with statewide planning policies.
Does that mean that the DOT will require land planning concessions before it spends any money? The department has been hinting about this for several months. According to the website, the NJFIT "will focus new investment on projects that aim to achieve a broader set of community goals." As an example, it cites a bypass in Flemington,where a new boulevard will connect to the local grid, "improving travel choices and supporting existing settlement patterns at one-third the cost of a limited access freeway."
By spending less money on condemning land to build new alignments, the DOT thinks it will have more money to spend on actual construction. Focusing on "system wellness," the DOT will undertake more projects and smaller projects that connect to county transportation systems.
The overall good news is that the stretch between Trenton and New Brunswick is supposed to be the poster child for the new FIT program. This stretch of Route 1 certainly needs help.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a light-rail system that runs on regular roads, could be part of the solution. But though the DOT website touts the proposed (BRT) plan, that plan is "moving slowly," says Sandra Brillhart, director of the Greater Mercer Transportation Association.
Taking out lights at Harrison Street and Washington Road by buildingthe Millstone Bypass could be part of the solution. But Brillhart says she has seen no progress on that.
Removing the traffic signal at Nassau Park was supposed to help. But this year’s U.S. 1 traffic survey shows that may have improved southbound times, but it didn’t help northbound commuters. In fact, the commute is longer now.
That’s because, instead of getting stopped at the Nassau Park light, traffic now starts to clog at Carnegie Boulevard. Most of our drivers clocked times of 10 to 12 minutes to get from Carnegie Boulevard to past Harrison Street, a stretch that takes less than five minutes when the coast is clear.
Meanwhile the Quakerbridge Mall announced a major expansion that would add significant traffic to Route 1.
"The Quakerbridge Mall traffic pattern will require substantial involvement from the local government for access to Route 1," says DOT spokesperson Jim Haddon in a telephone interview. "We have done some short term and long term feasibility assessment for Nassau Park Boulevard area, and we have done some preliminary data collection to identify short term solutions north of Quakerbridge Mall. As the mall starts to expand, we will look at the area going north to Route 130."
Noting that Route 1 has 19 traffic signals between I-295 and Route 130, Haddon says that the DOT is looking at ways to manage the signal changes on some segments. For instance, it could coordinate the four signals from Carnegie Boulevard to Harrison Street, or the seven signals from Independence Way to Sand Hill Road.
All of these projects are in jeopardy if the state legislators do not replenish the Transportation Trust Fund. The state has been floating long term high interest bonds, and three years ago it began tapping the fund for general purposes. Now the bonds are coming due. By next July every remaining dollar in the fund will have to be allocated to debt service.
One often-touted solution is to raise the 10.5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax, a tax that has not been raised in 17 years. The legislature has been loathe to do this, but Acting Governor Richard Codey might get it done after the November gubernatorial election.
"Every single plan in the department would be affected by the trust fund running out," says Haddon. NJ Transit depends on the trust fund for fare subsidies as well.
A glimmer of good news is the federal SAFETEA-LU bill passed earlier this month. Known as the "Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005, a Legacy for Users," it increases New Jersey’s federal funding for road and mass transit projects – but only after the Trust Fund gets funded.
Along with other federal and state officials Lettiere weighs in on SAFETEA-LU in a forum sponsored by Rutgers’ Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center on Wednesday, October 12, at 1 p.m., at the Civic Square Building in New Brunswick. (Call 732-932-6812, ext. 472 for a reservation.) The organizers promise "ample opportunity for interaction between speakers and audience."