Governor steers N.J. away from road expansion

Philadelphia Inquirer, Wed, Jan. 08, 2003

He also created a panel to anticipate the next decade's transportation concerns.

By Jennifer Moroz
Inquirer Staff Writer

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Saying that "highway expansion leads to more congestion," Gov. McGreevey yesterday called for working with what the state already has rather than adding to it.

At what was billed as the first in an annual series of state transportation conferences, McGreevey also signed an executive order creating a blue-ribbon commission to identify the next decade's most pressing transportation issues - and ways to address them.

The panel, consisting of seven representatives of the public and chaired by the state transportation commissioner, will be required to issue recommendations in early 2004.

"The challenge for the next year is clear," McGreevey told about 1,000 developers, environmentalists, labor representatives and government officials at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick. "We must plan carefully and set forth a transportation strategy for the next decade."

McGreevey further directed state transportation officials to come up with a plan to speed construction of priority projects. He emphasized that spending would be focused on improving existing infrastructure - roads, bridges, rail lines - instead of expansion.

The transportation budget already has been modified to reflect this "Fix it first" strategy - the same approach featured in the state's "smart growth" plan, which aims to prevent sprawl by favoring redevelopment of blighted areas over new construction. Funding for new transportation construction has been reduced from 20 percent of the capital budget to 4 percent.

"If we're trying to move people and ease congestion, we can't build more highways that will bring in even more congestion," acting Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere said. "We have to be intelligent about where we put our funds."

This year, transportation officials have a capital budget of about $2.5 billion. If spending levels remain constant, they estimate, there are an additional $5 billion worth of needed projects that the state won't be able to get to over the next five years.

Already, state officials said, commuters in New Jersey collectively waste an estimated 261 million hours a year sitting or crawling in
traffic. And they said things could only get worse in the next 20 years, when an additional one million people are expected to join the 8.4 million who already live in the state.

A main talking point yesterday was how to "sell" transportation in tough economic times.

Federal lawmakers, who appropriate roughly half the state's transportation capital budget, are expected to consider new funding levels in the next few months.

And the state Transportation Trust Fund, which is fed in large part by the state's gasoline tax, comes up for renewal next year. This year, that fund is contributing $1 billion toward capital projects.

State officials at the conference said they hoped that by developing a list of priority projects - showing people where their money is going and why specifically it is needed - legislators and the public they represent would be convinced of a need for more funding.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, pointed to projects such as the Southern New Jersey Light Rail Transit System as reasons the public might be leery. Democrats have described the rail line, being built between Camden and Trenton at an estimated cost of $1 billion, as a Republican boondoggle.

Said Wisniewski: "People have to be convinced that their transportation dollars will be used wisely."