Driving Declines Spell Big Trouble for Turnpikes

Traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike has declined 10 percent since 2005. Turnpike officials had predicted it would rise 3 to 5 percent annually. Photo: Wikipedia
Traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike has declined 10 percent since 2005. Turnpike officials had predicted it would rise 68 percent by 2023. Photo: Wikipedia

What the New Jersey Turnpike Authority did in 2005 was no different than what almost every other state and regional transportation agency was doing at the time. It predicted that traffic volumes would rise at a healthy clip every year for about 30 years into the future. Then it estimated its revenues based on those figures and issued bonds for a $2.5 billion road widening project.

Today we know that traffic hasn’t risen at all since 2005. New Jersey’s projections weren’t just a little wrong — they were wildly inaccurate. The bonds were predicated on a 68 percent increase in traffic by 2023. It’s not going to happen: The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that turnpike traffic has actually dropped 10 percent since 2005.

Even so, Chris Puchalsky, associate director of systems planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, told the Inquirer that local leaders aren’t blinking.

This chart shows the combined 20-year traffic projections of state and local governments in recent years compared to actual traffic levels. Image: State Smart Transportation Initiative
This chart shows the combined 20-year traffic projections of state and regional transportation agencies around the U.S. in recent years — the colored lines — compared to actual traffic levels — the black line. Image: State Smart Transportation Initiative

“We need two or three more years of data” before reconsidering the assumptions, he said.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission made a similar gamble in 2007, when it predicted traffic would rise 3 to 5 percent annually and started issuing up to $900 million in bonds annually for road and transit projects around the state based on those projections. Rather than rising, the Inquirer reports, traffic has been flat. Pennsylvania hoped to repay the bonds with the increased toll revenues and by adding tolls to I-80.

But the additional traffic never materialized, and the Federal Highway Administration rejected the proposed toll on I-80. Now the turnpike is paying much less every year for state transportation projects, but it is still saddled with a rising debt load — $8 billion, according to the Inquirer.

Here’s the kicker. Nikolaus Grieshaber, the turnpike’s chief financial officer, told the Inquirer that Pennsylvania is revising its projections downward. It will now predict a traffic increase of 1.5 percent annually.

Nationally, vehicle miles traveled increased 0.6 percent last year, so Pennsylvania is still predicting its traffic will increase two and half times faster than the nation as a whole in 2013.

  • thegreengrass

    Good thing we took on a multi-million dollar, multi-year project to widen it based on imaginary ideas. As a New Jerseyan and public transit user, it saddens me that we do this and yet we kill a project to increase train capacity through the busiest bottleneck in the country. Thanks Christie! You’re so smart.

  • ddartley

    Wow it’s hard to imagine a better visual illusatration of the notion “they never learn” than that chart.

  • anon_coward

    the overall traffic might have declined, but there are still a few spots where you have a lot of traffic.

  • anon_coward

    there is still traffic on it. i rarely drive it but the last time it took me 3 hours to drive back from Great Adventure, and a lot of it was sitting in traffic on i-95

  • C Monroe

    Makes me wonder about if there are clauses in the contract for the private companies that run some toll roads that the states have to make up the difference. It is something to look into.

  • TomG

    Makes you wonder if this is a matter of incompetence or political corruption or both. Complete, outright rejection of almost 10 years of data makes me think that lots of hands are in this cookie jar and the pols will put off adjusting to reality so that their connections can suck as much money and contracts out of the existing system as possible.

  • thegreengrass

    Sure, there’ll always be traffic on it. I’m fine with its existence, I just hate that Christie canceled a project to improve an alternative means of transportation – trains – while moving forward with a project to widen a road that will only be more gridlocked in the future. Widening roads just invites more traffic which creates further problems. It’s an irresponsible, self-perpetuating problems. It just sucks that the people in charge are all from the last generation who can’t think beyond cars. It’s depressing.

  • C Monroe

    I know in the private prison industry, that the state has to guarantee a bottom number of beds filled.

  • TomG

    Reading a book now by Jeff Stibel called, Breakpoint.” It’s about how all networks grow beyond their capacity then start to die off until they are able to reach their logical equilibrium. It seems pretty clear that’s what’s happening here.

  • C Monroe

    Still looking for an answer but here is something…Taxpayers on Hook for Tolls Despite Emergency

    Flood Evacuation

    Indiana

    In 2006, Indiana leased its toll road to a conglomeration of companies, including transportation

    infrastructure giant Macquarie and Spain-based Cintra. In 2008, Gov. Mitch Daniels

    declared an emergency during a massive flood and waived tolls for motorists

    escaping the affected areas. Because the contract contained a compensation

    clause, state taxpayers were required to pay the privatized toll road operator

    $447,000 for the cost of those waived tolls.74 The company prioritized

    profit over safety again when it did not allow Indiana state troopers to

    close the toll road during a snowstorm, claiming it was a private road.75

  • anon_coward

    supposedly ARC put NJ on the hook for any cost overruns and they would get little benefit.

    what about the PATH extension to the airport that’s going to be built? that’s good for NJ

  • thegreengrass

    Did it? I forget all of the details, honestly. What makes me most upset is that no active project replaced it. I know Amtrak has the Gateway project, but I don’t remember reading that it’s funded and we’re doing work on it. Isn’t it kind of stalled?

    That’s true, I forgot about the PATH extension. It’s a good idea, but it’s going to cost far more than it should. Right now it’s slated to cost $1.5 billion. For $1.1 billion, we got the River Line from Trenton to Camden. It’s kind of insane, and it makes even smaller project seem like expensive wastes of money to non-transit people. ( Source: http://nextcity.org/theworks/entry/the-record-breaking-cost-of-the-path-extension-to-newark-airport )

  • Jonathan Hawkins

    The amusing thing about that is that for the last few years the biggest source of congestion in that area near the Great Adventure exit is the widening construction project itself.

  • JoshNY

    “while moving forward with a project to widen a road that will only be more gridlocked in the future”

    But the thing is, the evidence doesn’t even support the claim that the Turnpike will be more crowded in the future. If you argue based on the idea that the road “will be more gridlocked” then Christie/Cuomo types will just continue to believe that what’s needed is widening. I’m not disagreeing with you, I just think your argument about Christie’s poor decisionmaking is stronger if you don’t concede the point that the road will continue to get more gridlocked.

  • thegreengrass

    That’s actually a super good point. I guess I was thinking of anecdotal evidence of previous widening projects around the country and totally ignoring the evidence this very article was presenting.

  • anon_coward

    if they kick amtrack out of Penn once moynihan opens up and free up some tracks and platforms there might be an argument for a new tunnel. but Penn is a huge mess now

    why can’t they build a connector from NJ transit to Metro North to send some trains to GCT?

  • thegreengrass

    Is Moynhihan even being worked on? I know Amtrak plans to extend some platform area of Penn Station but I haven’t heard “Moynihan Station” talked about all that much about it in a long time. Their site’s “current status” page only talks about things as of 2011.

    Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not intimately familiar with the complexities of rail operations in North Jersey and New York. But I thought the problem right now was a bottleneck caused by competing NJ Transit and Amtrak trains going in and out of Penn Station, and that another tunnel (i.e. more capacity) would help.

  • k

    Moynihan station would add precisely zero track and platform space. It moves the staging area for Amtrak from cramped Penn station to the post office across the street. ARC would have added both in addition to the new tunnel in the form of a new station next to the current Penn .

  • anon

    If I recall, planning for ARC considered a connection from a new tunnel into Penn to GCT and Metro North. One of the problems they ran into was that the Lex local track (south bound?) was in the way, and they’d have to shut it down for a considerable length of time during construction.

  • Larry Littlefield

    We’ve seen this movie before. In mass transit.

    http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/The_New_York_Transit_Authority_in_the_1970s

    “It would seem, looking back, that the New York City Transit Authority didn’t have a chance in the 1970s. Only 4 days into 1970, the fare was raised from 20 cents to 30 cents, with riders to Rockaway paying a double fare. The fare increase was supposed to plug up large deficits in operations, and whatever surplus was available could go to infrastructure repairs. With this fare hike, ridership declined, and this vicious cycle of fare hike / reduced ridership would repeat itself several times in the 1970s. Yet the required maintenance was never done.”

    They can’t cut debt. If they cut maintenance the roads deteriorate. If they raise tolls riders switch to the free roads, crowding them. Meanwhile, rising debt, pension and senior citizen health spending is straining general fund revenues.

  • TomD

    It depends on whether the bonds were “revenue bonds” or “general obligation bonds”. If revenue bonds, the bondholders take the hit; if GO (General Obligation), the taxpayers take it in the chin.

  • Nathanael

    Thankfully, New York State Thruway doesn’t do this kind of speculative bond issuance; we just direct the toll money to things like the Eire Canal. 😉

  • Nathanael

    Well… there’s something funny here. There’s probably always going to be SOME point on the Turnpike which will be super-busy. The final approach to the G W Bridge, for example, is likely to fill up with people coming from one direction or another.

    But yeah, the majority of the Turnpike is going to start emptying out.

  • Nathanael

    Lexington local southbound track.

    The only other problem listed with the Penn Station – Grand Central connection was “the property in this area is really expensive and we don’t want to upset the owners by digging at a relatively shallow level”.

    Seriously, that was the reason given for rejecting “Alternative G”. It’s a bad reason.

  • Nathanael

    The mass transportation operators were in a better position, actually… because there weren’t alternative “free mass transit” routes. But there are a lot of alternative “free roads”.

  • yodasws

    Funny how all those projections have the same slope as the 1999 projection that was the same as ’90s traffic growth. Clearly no one saw the benefits of doing any new studies!

  • Andrew Dawson

    All roads need to be tolled.