Wednesday, July 13, 2005

New Jersey in the Driver’s Seat

Liberty and Prosperity is the Garden State’s motto, but there’s not much garden left in a state that celebrates the most miles of highway and the most heavily traveled highways in the nation. A New York Times article suggests New Jersey is having a transportation meltdown.


There is a plan, a regional plan by (what better name?) the Regional Plan Association and, after looking in their crystal ball, they recognize that:


  • State speed limits may have to be lowered (due to basically unsafe roads)

  • Repair work on highways may have to be be deferred indefinitely (no money)

  • Lane closures may occur over longer and longer periods of time

  • Fewer trains and busses may be available, causing

  • Longer delays and standing room only

The trust fund that finances highway and public transport in New Jersey is supposed to be sacrosanct and used for highways (?) and transport (?).  But liberties have been  taken by the legislature in the false sense of prosperity we all enjoyed in the 90's.  That lead to some poor choices. It wasn’t what the motto-makers had in mind when they crafted the state slogan, but then boys will be boys and most politicians are just kids at heart.. 


New Jersey is perhaps the best (though far from the only) example of elected officials putting off capital investment in infrastructure because it makes voters nervous and nervous voters tend to vote for someone else.


Infrastructure is that stuff that nobody sees, like:


  • Sewer repairs

  • Bridge repair and replacement

  • Electric grid maintenance

  • Water transmission systems

and a whole raft of other things, mostly underground.  But the part that’s currently falling apart that people do see is the road they drive on their way to work, the one traveled every day that’s suddenly taking twice as long to navigate.  Lots of heat on the acting-governor for findings of a commission empowered by the last elected governor, who then got himself in sexual hot-water and took a powder. 


Which is too bad, because Jim McGreevey (the guy who's gone) seemed to have the courage to at least talk about solving this problem while in office.


Optimists blame the put-it-off-until-later-and-finance-it boom years attitudes that then went bust in the dot.com meltdown.  Pessimists claim the old joke, “So you’re from New Jersey? What exit?” is just the tip of a very ugly transportation iceberg that's been decades underwater.  Realists think that New Jersey is way out there on the tip of the American transportation spear, as all of the nations major metropolitan areas become less and less navigable.  Drive-times by private automobile are taking up a higher and higher percentage of the working day as incidents of road rage increase and work place productivity plummets.


There are lots of places where it still makes sense to drive cars and the problem with most public transport proposals is that they deny that and lump all drivers as problems to be solved.  We are not all part of the problem.  But many of us are and we predominate in the urban centers, particularly along the east coast. In the short fifty years since Dwight Eisenhower gifted us with an Interstate highway network, it’s become unworkable near the cities it connects.


Jerseyites have shown us the future and it’s the near future rather than something that can once again be put off by jittery legislatures.  At a minimum we need smaller cars, running on hybrid fuels and a big investment in local light-rail transport. A visit to any European capitol will show the way. They did it, not because they were so much smarter than Americans, but because their cities never had room for cars and parking. 


Amtrak is not the answer and has proven it by low ridership except in the most congested Boston-Washington corridor.  But inner-city and intra-city light rail holds excellent prospects for alleviating the enormous load that private automobiles put on our land-use, commuting times and road maintenance issues.  President Bush is distracted by other issues in his presidency, but the congress can certainly address the issue. What’s needed is immediate planning by the cities most at risk and implementation of a federal funding program.


What we’ll get is anybody’s guess.


See Amtrak, that Damned Track