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New Jersey’s Response to Suicide Attempt: Close Bridge to Pedestrians

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Without access to the Route 35 Victory Bridge, the path between Perth Amboy and Sayreville gets a whole lot longer. Via WalkBikeJersey/Google Maps

Today’s featured post from the Streetsblog Network is a case study in overreaction and unintended consequences.

John Boyle at WalkBikeJersey reports that after a suicide attempt on the Route 35 Victory Bridge, officials in New Jersey want to sever this important walking and biking link entirely:

On September 20th the body of 16 year old Giancarlo Taveras was recovered from the Raritan River after he jumped off the Route 35 Victory Bridge. The death of the teenager drew an outpouring of grief from the Perth Amboy community. As a result the annual suicide awareness walk over the bridge included more than 500 participants on September 28th. Then on September 29th a 19 year old miraculously survived his suicide attempt with a broken leg. That chain of events along, with pressure from the mayor of Perth Amboy finally spurred NJDOT to do something about the issue. Their solution — set up barricades and close the bridge to bicyclists and pedestrians. Along with a vague promise to put up a fence for the walkway at some point in the future.

The bridge closure severs the only pedestrian and bicycle access between Perth Amboy and Sayreville. A 2 mile bike ride over the bridge is now a 23 mile detour via New Brunswick and a pedestrian’s only option is to use the infrequent bus service that crosses the bridge.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Using examples from the Netherlands, A View from the Cycle Path explains why the “there’s no room for bike lanes” argument doesn’t hold up. The Dallas Morning News’ Transportation Blog has good news: The toll road that regional transportation officials justified with absurd traffic projections will probably be shelved. And Urban Cincy reports that Denver is trying to tackle the food desert problem with healthy corner stores.

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Parking Madness: Newark vs. Dallas

We’re halfway through the first round of the 2014 Parking Madness tournament, with Kansas City, Detroit, Chicago, and Jacksonville having advanced to the next round.

Today’s matchup pairs two very different cities with the same problem: parking craters. A reader submitted the following definition yesterday: park-ing cra-ter (noun) is “ugly, and an inefficient use of space in a downtown area.” So which city has screwed up its downtown worse?

Let’s start out by surveying the damage in Newark, New Jersey’s largest city:

newark

This location includes a lot of surface parking near the Prudential Center, the hockey and basketball arena that opened in 2007. It’s also near Newark Penn Station, a major transit hub where intercity trains, commuter rail, light rail, and a multitude of bus routes converge, notes submitter Michael Klatsky. What a shame.

Now let’s see what Dallas has cooked up for us.

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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.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Bikes of Ill Repute

Jeff Wood and I are back with episode 8 of the Talking Headways podcast. We talk about Los Angeles Metro’s decision not to extend light rail all the way to LAX (and what they’re doing instead), plus some analysis of what rail can really do in a city as spread-out as LA. Then we head east to Princeton, New Jersey, where we debunk the thesis that low sales of luxury condos somehow equates to a rejection of walkability. And finally, back west to Seattle, which finds itself with a similar problem to LA: how to bring more density to settled single-family areas?

You can subscribe to our RSS feed or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes — and please give us a listener review while you’re at it.

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With Senate on Fire, Can Cory Booker Save Its Transportation Committees?

Outside of New Jersey, Cory Booker is probably best known for running into a burning building to save a woman’s life. Inside New Jersey, he’s better known for trying — with mixed results — to turn around the state’s biggest and perhaps most troubled city, Newark. Nowhere has he made a particular name for himself on transportation.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker became U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) yesterday.

That all might change. Mayor Booker became Senator Booker yesterday, replacing Frank Lautenberg, whose support for rail transport was so integral to his identity that his casket was carried to Washington on an Amtrak train.

Not only will Booker replace Lautenberg in the Senate, he’s replacing Lautenberg on two key committees with jurisdiction over transportation: the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is in charge of crafting the surface transportation bill, and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which authors the bill’s rail and “safety” portions.

The Commerce committee authored laudable rail and safety legislation for MAP-21, only to see it get left on the cutting room floor. That was a shame, because it included an important provision for multiplying complete streets policies around the country — a goal Cory Booker shares.

Booker was enthusiastic last year when Newark passed a complete streets policy, boasting, “Newark’s streets will be the safest and most welcoming in the entire nation.”

“We have taken a holistic approach to making our streets and sidewalks safe and accessible for all of our residents and visitors, whether they walk, drive, or bicycle,” he said. Booker himself is always game for a bike ride.

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Rep. Scott Garrett Wants to Let Dead-Broke States Go It Alone on Transpo

In order to “address our insolvent transportation program and end the taxpayer bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund,” Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) has introduced a bill to let states “opt out” of the federal transportation program altogether.

Rep. Scott Garrett's own state would likely not do well under his plan to hand states the reins on transportation funding. Photo: Pete Marovich/Zuma via Mother Jones

In true devolutionist fantasy style, Garrett says he wants to give states the option to forgo their transportation allocations and keep the 18.4 cents per gallon that now is charged as a federal tax.

It harkens back to the old griping from “donor” states that they pay more in gas taxes than they get back in formula funds, only there’s no such thing as a donor state anymore because of the constant stream of federal bailouts. Garrett says that’s the target of his bill.

“For our children and our grandchildren’s future, we must put an end to Washington bailouts,” said Garrett upon introducing the bill. “On top of the bailouts to the banks and car companies, the hardworking American taxpayers have bailed out the Highway Trust Fund no less than three times over the last five years. It must stop.”

Garrett’s press release also notes that MAP-21 provided for $18.8 billion more from the general fund in 2013 and 2014.

He says letting states opt out of the federal program would “free up states’ transportation dollars from federal micromanagement” – though MAP-21 gave states an even longer leash than they’d asked for.

Giving states sole authority over the nation’s infrastructure is a funny way to “solve” the infrastructure funding problem. First of all, the recession has been brutally hard on states, forcing cuts to just about every program, no matter how essential. Second, virtually all states are constitutionally bound to balance their budgets. Maybe that’s Garrett’s big idea – states can’t run up deficits like the feds can, so let the states handle it. That’s a recipe for either massive cuts in infrastructure spending – fresh on the heels of the latest D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers – or tax hikes.

Garrett’s bill is almost definitely going nowhere (he introduced the same bill two years ago, and it died without any serious consideration), but it would be interesting to consider what would happen if his home state opted out of the federal transportation program.

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Parking Madness Kicks Off With Milwaukee vs. Jersey City – Cast Your Vote!

Earlier this month we asked you: What is the worst parking crater in America? What is the ugliest parking scar draining the life from a downtown?

And Streetsblog readers answered. In all we received 23 submissions from nearly as many states, from the blazing blacktop of San Bernardino, California, to the asphalt expanses of Philadelphia — and a lot of pockmarked places in between. We received so many, we had to break it down into a March Madness-style tournament, matching up 16 finalists in a single-elimination bracket.

Who will take home the championship? That’s up to you. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be matching up city versus asphalt-maimed city and asking for your vote to determine who will advance. Ladies and gentlemen, the bracket:

We’re kicking off the competition today with a matchup between two proud metros. One gave us the Champagne of Beers, the other gave us Frank Sinatra. It’s Milwaukee versus Jersey City.

Remember to vote at the bottom.

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Who Should Foot the Bill for Sandy’s Damage to Tracks and Train Tunnels?

Water rushing into the Hoboken PATH station through an elevator shaft last night. Photo credit: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

As the East Coast surveys the damage from Hurricane Sandy, cities are still struggling to get their transit systems back up and running.

In New York City, there is no firm timetable for restoring subway service after train tunnels were flooded with a surge of saltwater, in what New York MTA Chair Joe Lhota has called the most devastating event to ever strike the subway system.

In Philadelphia, SEPTA is slowly bringing back service on subway and bus lines. The regional rail system is down at least until tomorrow, with the majority of the damage apparently from downed trees. Amtrak has also continued its suspension of service on the Northeast Corridor, with repairs pending on the track and signal systems, as well as the removal of trees and other debris.

New Jersey Transit was hit hard, with “major damage on each and every one of New Jersey rail lines,” according to Governor Chris Christie, including washouts along the North Jersey Coast Line and at Kearny Junction, as well as flooding at rail hubs in Secaucus, Hoboken and Newark Penn Station, according to the AP. It could be seven to 10 days before PATH train service is restored.

DC’s metro came back online at 2:00 p.m. today, and there was no major flooding or damage reported to Baltimore’s and Boston’s transit systems.

Damage to infrastructure isn’t the only cost of the hurricane — lost productivity will also ding the economy, as workplaces up and down the coast stay shuttered for another day today.

One early estimate pegged the total damage caused by the storm at more than $20 billion, with insured losses at about $7 billion. Infrastructure repairs figure to account for a substantial portion of the costs. With transit agencies and local governments still feeling the fiscal squeeze, who will foot the bill?

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New Jersey’s Urban Centers Are Bouncing Back

New Jersey’s cities — even downtrodden and smaller ones — are seeing a dramatic shift in population trends, according to research from smart growth group New Jersey Future.

The small city of Red Bank, New Jersey has seen dramatic population growth over the last four years, part of a statewide trend toward already-developed areas. Photo: Pruzach

The state’s eight largest urban areas – Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, Paterson, Elizabeth, Camden, New Brunswick, Atlantic City — accounted for 11.4 percent of the state’s population growth between 2008 and 2011. That’s a big change compared to the 1.1 percent those cities accounted for between 2000 and 2008. According to NJ Future, this period marks the first time since the 1930′s that the growth rate of these cities (1.7 percent) has come close to the statewide rate (1.8).

Sprawl appears to be losing steam in a state that is very well-known for it. The 188 cities and towns in New Jersey that are at least 95 percent developed, or “built out,” saw their populations rise 2 percent between 2008 and 2011 — slightly more than the state average of 1.8 percent. In the eight years prior, this same group of municipalities had declined 1 percent.

Finally, even 30 “distressed cities,” as identified in 2006 by the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, saw their prospects take a turn for the better. Over the last four years, these places outpaced state growth 2.6 percent to 1.8 percent.

New Jersey Future‘s Tim Evans says the national trend toward urban living has clearly arrived in New Jersey.

The Census Bureau and the Associated Press have already noted the turnaround in the municipal data from the national perspective, with cities growing faster than their surroundings for the first time in decades. Is the same thing happening in New Jersey? In a word, yes.

Considering that New Jersey is the most developed state in the nation, this trend toward redevelopment of already-built areas and away from continued development of a dwindling supply of open land is good news. If any state is in need of a rethinking of the dominant development paradigm – or is better poised to capitalize on the alternative – it is New Jersey.

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Lautenberg Brawls With Port Authority Exec Over Tolling

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has been spoiling for a fight ever since the Port Authority raised tolls to cross into New York. And yesterday, he got it.

The Lincoln Tunnel helix in 1955. It hasn't been rehabbed since then. Photo: Wikipedia

Lautenberg invited Bill Baroni, the deputy director of the Port Authority, to testify at a Commerce Committee hearing that turned into little more than a showdown between the two men.

Lautenberg was commissioner of the Port Authority from 1978 to 1982, and he said that back then, the toll was $2, which would be about $5 in today’s dollars. “When it costs $12 to drive your car across a bridge in America, something is wrong,” Lautenberg said, adding that the decision to raise the rates was made “behind closed doors.”

Baroni countered that the Authority had actually held 10 public hearings on the toll increase, involving more than 1,500 people. He went through a list of crisis-level needs that necessitated the toll increase, from the Bayonne Bridge, which has to be raised to allow larger ships to pass under it, to the Lincoln Tunnel helix, which hadn’t been rehabbed in 70 years, to the George Washington Bridge’s suspender ropes, which need replacing.

But then he mentioned that Lautenberg, as a former commissioner, has a free E-ZPass, and that “it is impossible to argue fairness in tolls if you don’t pay them.” The whole thing spiraled into a war of words from there, with Baroni at one point obliquely comparing Lautenberg to Joe McCarthy.

The shoot-‘em-up nature of the hearing may have been the most entertaining part, but amidst the political theater there were some meaningful comments on the utility of tolling: for example, Baroni’s insistence that more funds from drivers are needed to bring his agency’s infrastructure into a state of good repair. Barring an increase in the gas tax, tolling is the only way to raise that revenue and maintain aging roads and bridges.

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