Why Jersey Roads Suck

Dense population centers, aging infrastructure and a failing transportation fund have put New Jersey on the brink of disaster.

Friday night traffic at the Garden State Parkway toll plaza in East Orange.

Photo by George Steinmetz.

New Jersey potholes are no joke. Just ask Catherine Felegi.

A confident driver, Felegi, 26, travels 30 miles on state roads each workday from her home in Cranford to her job in Plainsboro and back. Last winter, Felegi and her parents had to replace five tires on their two Volvos, victims of potholes on those roads. Felegi says most of the damage was done on Route 130—a major north-south road through Middlesex County, where pothole after pothole pocked a construction zone.

Felegi remembers two craters in particular that she hit almost daily. Situated in the left lane of the four-lane thoroughfare—the lane she needed to be in to merge—the potholes were all but unavoidable. Swerve to miss the craters and you might cause an accident. Either way, it’s an expensive decision.

The family spent a total of $600 to replace the five tires. But it’s not just the money that bothers Felegi.

“It’s frustrating,” she sighs. One night after blowing out a tire on Route 130, she had to wait alongside the highway in the cold for her father to help her change the flat. That killed her plans to catch a movie premiere that evening.

From potholes and congestion to endless construction projects and obsolete bridges, our highways and byways are a mess.

New Jersey is the most densely populated state, so it’s no surprise that traffic is an issue. And with the state’s population continuing to rise as our infrastructure ages, automobile commuters are sure to face more daily stress. Meanwhile, our railway system, which has similar challenges, can’t be counted on to relieve vehicular traffic any time soon.

While a few major arteries are being upgraded, notably the New Jersey Turnpike, the Pulaski Skyway and the Palisades Interstate Parkway, the overall picture looks bleak. In a state that can’t seem to dig out of its post-recession financial blues, there’s little money for infrastructure improvements. In fact, the state’s major source of money for road, bridge and rail projects, the Transportation Trust Fund, is itself a disaster area, short on revenue and long on debt.

AILING INFRASTRUCTURE

So why do New Jersey roads suck?

James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, says New Jersey is a victim of its own success.

“It’s a problem in the entire northeast region,” Hughes notes. “We’re the oldest, most mature part of the nation. It’s where the early industrial development took place, where the first highways were built, the greatest rail concentrations.”

For much of the 20th century, New Jersey enjoyed an infrastructure boom. New highways, bridges, tunnels and railways fueled long periods of economic growth. At the end of the century came what Hughes calls the “waterfront boom.” But those days are gone. “All we’ve been doing the last several years, or the last decade for the most part, is repairing the system,” he says.

Our bridges are particularly problematic. According to a report by Forward New Jersey, a coalition of New Jersey businesses, 624 of the state’s 6,566 bridges (9.5 percent) are structurally deficient. Another 1,710 (26 percent) are functionally obsolete.

By definition, a deficient bridge has a major structural defect that must be monitored and eventually fixed. Slapping weight limits on the spans can help extend the life of deficient bridges when funding for repairs is unavailable.

Functionally obsolete bridges, while not necessarily defective, are outmoded in some way. For example, they may not have sufficient clearance for certain vehicles.

Structurally deficient “doesn’t mean the bridges are going to fall down or collapse,” says Ali Maher, director of the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT) at Rutgers. “It means…they’re not feeling well. They need more care and more inspections and more rehabilitation.”

Under federal law, bridges must be inspected at least every two years. Even more frequent inspections might not be enough to prevent disaster. The now infamous I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis, for example, had been rated structurally deficient in 1990 and given annual inspections until 2007, when rehabilitation of the bridge began. During the evening rush hour of August 1, 2007, the bridge collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145. An investigation revealed that a design error and increased weight load from construction equipment caused the bridge to fail.

New Jersey’s structurally deficient bridges include some of our most traveled spans. The Pulaski Skyway, currently undergoing rehabilitation, is on the list. So is the 85-year-old Route 3 bridge over Northern Secondary Ramp A near Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen. That bridge, which carries an estimated 108,000 vehicles daily, is slated by the DOT for rehabilitation this year. Other relics on the roster include the 106-year-old Centerton Road Bridge in Westampton, and the state’s oldest overpass, the 222-year-old Stony Brook Bridge in Princeton, a two-lane arch bridge that carries an estimated 13,000 vehicles a day.

Some of our aging bridges have already been closed to traffic, including the 93-year-old Nottingham Way Bridge in Hamilton and the 116-year-old Glimmer Glass Bridge in Manasquan; both are in line for rehab this year.

Many of New Jersey’s roadways are similarly worrisome. The American Society for Civil Engineers found that 66 percent of New Jersey’s roads are in poor condition. As Felegi and her family learned the hard way, substandard roadways give rise to accidents, traffic jams and tire damage—costing an average of $601 per New Jersey motorist each year.

Geography has whipped up a perfect storm for Jersey roads. We are considered a corridor state, a link between New York and Philadelphia and, on a grander scale, between Boston and Washington, D.C. That means substantial interstate traffic. What’s more, we are the country’s third largest warehouse distributor, and our ports are among the busiest. That adds up to high-volume, heavy-duty truck traffic.

“What’s really changed the pavement is not car traffic, it’s truck traffic—same thing with bridges,” says Maher. “We design bridges and roads based on loads of trucks, not loads of passenger cars, and because we’re a corridor transportation state with the third largest port in the country, truck traffic is here to stay.”

Our weather doesn’t help matters. Extremes of hot and cold cause pavement to expand and contract—and that spawns potholes. (See story here.)

“Put it together,” says Hughes. “Our high density, the weather, the age—it’s not surprising that we have a way-above-average problem of crumbling infrastructure.”

CRIPPLING DEBT

The Transportation Trust Fund was created to solve our roadway problems. Established in 1984 under Governor Thomas Kean, the TTF was the first program of its kind in the nation.

Funded by a series of dedicated taxes, the TTF was conceived as a pay-as-you-go revenue source for capital projects on state-run roadways. It was also meant to support county and municipal road projects and NJ Transit capital improvements. (Toll roads, including the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway and the Atlantic City Expressway, are supported mainly by their respective tolls.)

The TTF’s main source of revenue—about $540 million a year—is the consumer tax on gasoline, which is paid at the pump. Additionally, the fund receives the first $200 million from both the automobile sales tax and the petroleum gross receipts tax, a four-cents-per-gallon tax imposed on distributors of petroleum products. Finally, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority chips in roughly $12 million annually.

It adds up to between $905 million and $960 million each fiscal year. But that’s hardly enough.

“The TTF is broke,” says Robert Briant Jr., vice president of the TTF Authority. “We’re more than broke.”
In fact, the TTF is in debt to the tune of $14 billion, thanks to decades of issuing and refinancing bonds to raise additional funds beyond the mandated taxes.

Without an infusion of capital to help pay down debt, the fund faces insolvency in July, the start of New Jersey’s 2016 fiscal year. For years, state lawmakers and transportation experts have called for an increase in the gasoline tax to improve the TTF’s balance sheet. The current rate of 10.5 cents per gallon has been in place since 1988 and is the second lowest in the country, trailing only Alaska. In New York, the gas tax is 50.5 cents per gallon ; Pennsylvania’s rate is 41.8 cents per gallon.

New Jersey is not alone. The Federal Highway Trust Fund, which supports construction and maintenance of the Interstate Highway System, is also on the verge of insolvency. It too is largely supported by a tax at the pump. The federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has not been increased since 1993.

TAX TIME?

At deadline, a bill to increase New Jersey’s gas tax by 5 cents a gallon in each of the next three years was awaiting action by the Senate transportation committee. The time might be right for such a measure, but it would require a bold about-face by Governor Chris Christie, who has steadfastly opposed any new tax. Proponents of the tax were buoyed by the governor’s surprise appointment in September of Jamie Fox as his new Department of Transportation (DOT) commissioner. Fox, a Democrat, had served in the same capacity during the administration of former governor James E. McGreevey. In making the appointment, Christie said “all options are on the table” for ending the state’s transportation-funding morass. But Fox has been noncommittal about raising the gas tax. At the state’s League of Municipalities conference in November, he suggested that “creative people in the Legislature and creative people in the executive branch” should be able to devise an “innovative” program to fix the TTF.

Jersey politicians have long shied away from a tax increase, despite inflation in almost every other transportation cost, says Martin E. Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers.

For now, the TTF is an accountant’s worst nightmare. The state DOT’s capital-improvements plan for the current fiscal year is budgeted at $3.7 billion, to be covered in part by approximately $1.6 billion in federal matching funds. But the federal match is contingent on the TTF raising $1.6 billion of its own. Trouble is, with only about $950 million anticipated in revenue and an annual debt payment of more than $1 billion, the $1.6 billion mark can only be reached with one-time gimmicks like issuing new bonds or diverting funds from elsewhere—two unattractive options.

“We’ve been borrowing money every year,” Briant says. “Unfortunately, we never really paid any bonds off.” Most of the original 10-year bonds have been refinanced to 30 years, he explains. “Now our annual debt service is $1.186 billion a year.”

To make matters worse, New Jersey doesn’t get the federal matching funds if upkeep of our roads slips.
“If [the majority of] our pavements, road surfaces and bridges become deficient, which they are very close to, and we continue to not make repairs, we drop below the threshold the government requires us to maintain,” Briant says. “And then they freeze our money.”

To help support the TTF in recent years, Port Authority funds from the canceled Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project were reallocated to the fund. ARC would have created a new tunnel under the Hudson River connecting Secaucus Junction with a new rail station near New York’s Penn Station. Claiming that cost overruns likely would be borne by New Jersey, Christie killed the project in 2010. That resulted in a $1.8 billion windfall, which has buttressed the TTF for the past several fiscal years. But those funds run out in fiscal year 2016.

Meanwhile, the TTF’s debt payments continue to grow. The total debt is projected to jump to $16 billion in the coming fiscal year. By 2045, it could reach $30 billion.

“Every dollar coming in has to go toward debt service, so you can’t start any new projects,” says Robins. “And without an increase in revenue, you can’t issue more bonds for more construction.”

Welcome to funding limbo.

TRICKLING DOWN
Insufficient funding at the state level means less money trickles down to help counties and municipalities repair infrastructure.

Brian Wahler, mayor of Piscataway—the 328-year-old town that’s home to much of Rutgers University—knows the math. He says road conditions in the state are an embarrassment.

“You have certain roads—state roads—where downtown Baghdad in Iraq has better roadways,” says Wahler. “With the amount of money that the federal government has spent in Iraq and Afghanistan… in a lot of cases those countries have better road systems than we do… it’s an absolute disgrace.”

The TTF first allocated about 22 percent of its budget to help counties and municipalities with capital projects. For fiscal year 2015, the allocation staggers at around 15 percent, or about $284 million for the state’s 21 counties and 565 municipalities.

Piscataway has identified $40 million in potential construction projects involving at least 15 municipal roads. With little state funding available, many of the projects will be delayed.

In recent years, Piscataway, a township of 57,000 full-time residents, has received between $200,000 and $300,000 annually from the TTF to augment the $3 million to $4 million in local taxes earmarked for municipal road projects.

Wahler views the lack of state support as more than a local issue. He points out that the state’s major roadways are fed by smaller “collector” streets—low-to-moderate capacity roads under county and municipal jurisdiction. Municipal roads account for 74 percent of Jersey’s roadways; county roads, another 17 percent. Combined, says Wahler, these roads “are just as important as the state highway system.”

RIDING THE RAILS
For some commuters, there’s a handy workaround: Take the train. Railway proponents see train travel as a cost-effective way to relieve the stress on overcrowded and decaying roadways.

DOT commissioner Fox regards rail travel as part of a broader solution. “Addressing congestion requires a mix of strategies,” says Fox. These include “keeping our existing infrastructure in a state of good repair, using technology such as Intelligent Transportation System [ITS] improvements, and a continued commitment to mass transit, as well as other forms of transportation such as bicycle and pedestrian accommodations.”

Not that our trains aren’t already pulling their weight. Of the state’s approximately 3.9 million daily commuters, 353,175, or 9 percent, travel to work by train or light rail. Another 537,000, about 13 percent, take NJ Transit buses. With the state’s population expected to increase from 8.8 million in 2010 to 9.6 million in 2020, the number using public transit is sure to grow. A study by the United States Public Interest Research Group shows that many millennials—the generation born between 1983 and 2000—are fed up with driving and want to live in places where mass transit is readily available.

NJ Transit, the state-owned public transportation system, is already the third largest transit system in the country, with 165 rail stations, 62 light-rail stations and more than 19,000 bus stops, according to Forward New Jersey.

But like roads and bridges, railways require TTF support for maintenance, upgrades and expansion.
NJ Transit receives about $495 million annually from TTF for capital projects. The rest of its budget comes largely from federal funds ($695 million) and passenger fares ($921 million).

Currently, an estimated 176 NJ Transit rail cars and 1,388 buses need replacement, according to Forward New Jersey, and new rail projects are struggling to move forward.

One project in particular, the proposed Glassboro-Camden light-rail line—an 18-mile passenger link between Glassboro and Camden—is on hold mainly due to lack of funding, says John Ward, deputy executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. He says the Glassboro-Camden line would help relieve vehicular traffic on I-295, NJ-55 and NJ-42—all major arteries accessing Camden and Philadelphia.

“There’s a lot of support for that project,” he says, “but there’s still a question of who would operate it and pay for the construction. It’s maybe something the TTF would be able to address if there was additional money in the trust fund.”

Also on the table: extension of the Hudson-Bergen line 10 miles north of its current terminus in North Bergen, and construction of two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River to temporarily replace, and ultimately supplement, the two 100-year-old tunnels used by NJ Transit and Amtrak to carry passengers to and from Manhattan. The existing tunnels—both damaged by Hurricane Sandy—must be closed for repairs sometime in the next decade. An emergency closure of one of the existing tunnels before at least one of the new tunnels is ready would be a nightmare for commuters and a catastrophe for the economies of New Jersey and New York.

Fixing the old tunnels and building new ones now falls under the umbrella of the Gateway Project, an initiative unveiled in 2011 after the demise of ARC. Gateway, originally estimated at $14.7 billion, includes expansion of New York Penn Station and the Northeast Corridor line in and out of the city. The TTF is expected to help fund the project in conjunction with New York State, Amtrak and the federal government. Completion is expected between 2025 and 2030.

“Additional cross-Hudson capacity is something that would benefit the entire region,” says Fox.

MOVING FORWARD
How do we fix this mess?

“In order to maintain what we have—just maintain, not improve—we really have to spend over $2 billion a year,” says the TTF’s Briant. “In order to get some sense of improvement, we have to spend $3 billion a year.”

Which brings us to the gas tax. Last March, state Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) proposed the bill that was awaiting action in Trenton as New Jersey Monthly went to press. The legislation, which over the next three years would phase in a 15-cents per-gallon tax increase, would increase funding for TTF by $250 million in the first year, $500 million the second year and $750 million the following year. A 15-cent hike would mean a driver with a 16-gallon tank would spend an additional $2.40 for each tankful.

Hughes notes that, even with the proposed increase, Jersey’s gas tax would remain lower than that of surrounding states. That means our neighbors would continue to cross into New Jersey to fill up.

Still, Jersey residents aren’t sure they like the smell of this tax. In a Rutgers-Eagleton poll last April, only 31 percent of residents supported the increase. By October, support had inched up to 38 percent. Among other factors, opponents note that the gas tax is a regressive levy that would hurt low-income drivers far more than affluent ones. What’s more, Jersey drivers have just been hit with four years of gradually increasing Port Authority tolls, bringing the cost of a peak-hour Hudson River crossing to $11.75 for E-ZPass holders and $14 for cash customers. The toll is scheduled to go up again in December 2015.

Even if passed, the higher gas tax won’t be a panacea. Jon Carnegie, executive director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers, points out that construction costs will continue to rise in coming years. At the same time, cars will become more fuel efficient, lowering gas consumption—and gas tax revenue.

“There needs to be an honest and open discussion of alternatives to the gas tax for the longer-term future of funding transportation,” Carnegie says.

To that end, Forward New Jersey published a list of 12 funding options, which founder Tom Bracken describes as “conversation starters” in an attempt to get lawmakers to focus on TTF needs. Options include yet another tax—this time an additional 3.5 to 7 percent sales tax on motor fuels at the wholesale or retail level, such as implemented in New York, Florida, California and other states.

Another option is to consolidate transportation agencies like the DOT, NJ Transit, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the South Jersey Turnpike Authority into one mega-agency. That would save a projected $1 billion over 10 years.

Some believe public-private partnerships, known as P3s, are the way to go. This strategy allows public projects to be partially funded by private entities. The influx of private capital could greatly increase funding for needed projects.

Other possible funding solutions have bubbled up in Trenton. In October, Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Paramus) proposed a bill—which has now been referred to the Assembly transportation and independent authorities committee—that would dedicate tax revenues to the TTF from the sale of alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas and hydrogen.

The following month, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) introduced a bill that would raise the petroleum gross receipts tax from 4 cents per gallon to 9 percent of the average retail price of unleaded gasoline—currently around 25 cents. This, combined with the current gas tax, would raise the state’s total tax on gasoline to 40 cents per gallon.

Others have proposed dedicating 100 percent of Motor Vehicle Commission surplus funds and diesel charges to the TTF. In fiscal 2015, as things stand, the MVC’s $521 million in expected revenue will go to the commission’s budget and the state’s general fund; none of the revenue is earmarked for the TTF.
Maher, director of CAIT at Rutgers, says technology also can help rescue Jersey’s ailing infrastructure.

“One thing everyone agrees on is the use of advanced technology in evaluating the condition of infrastructure and also the use of technology for repair and maintenance,” he says.

The state is already traveling down this avenue. The DOT uses 2 CAIT robots to inspect bridge decks for deficiencies. Additionally, Maher says the school is constantly working to develop advanced materials for roads and bridges. Already implemented are improved asphalt mixtures developed at CAIT that should help extend pavement life.

All of this could become a road to nowhere if TTF resources are not increased. Hughes, who watched the birth of the fund and now fears its demise, says even politicians who have opposed increasing the tax may finally have to give in.

“The general rule in politics is that nothing happens until the pain of inaction becomes greater than the pain of taking action,” he says. “Right now, the problem is already so bad that if you don’t do anything, the pain is going to be much, much greater than the pain of doing something.”

Click here to read about why New Jersey has so many potholes.

Click here to read about the worst traffic spots in the state.

Click here to read about New Jersey road rage.

Click here to read about News 12 New Jersey traffic reporter Cara Di Falco.

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  1. Sam Kenseth

    Five tires in a year due to potholes is a bit ridiculous, and I’m sure she is not the only one! I hope NJ can pull the funds together to get things patched up. Transportation affects everyone!