All that Courtney Belton really wants is a seat and on-time arrivals as she commutes aboard a New Jersey Transit train. The Northeast Corridor, the busiest U.S. rail line, doesn’t always accommodate.
The inconveniences are bound to worsen: A block from the New Brunswick station where she waits, a 238-unit apartment building is being marketed to those eager to trade cars for mass transit. At least 26,000 such homes have been built or are planned across the state in what are called transit villages.
Four years after Governor Chris Christie killed the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel that was to more than double train capacity to Manhattan, his administration is using $1.4 billion in developer tax incentives and grants to stoke a commuter boom on a strained rail system. The clashing priorities threaten New Jersey’s ability to serve growing numbers of suburbanites who want to break free of reliance on automobiles.
“Transit villages aren’t just a policy decision -- it’s also a convergence of what people want today,” said Martin Robins, the tunnel’s original project director and director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. “It makes the Christie administration’s decision to kill ARC that much more egregious a mistake.”
Transit-oriented design is seen as a remedy for suburban sprawl, a way to lessen carbon pollution and it’s part of studies for post-bankruptcy rebirth in Detroit and Stockton, California. In the U.S. Senate, legislation introduced by Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz on May 1 would provide loans and credit lines to local governments that plan around mass transportation.
Even as New Jersey Transit spends hundreds of millions of dollars on station improvements, it isn’t adding multi-level rail cars. And while a pair of 100-year-old tunnels beneath the Hudson River operate at capacity, the transit system is expected to absorb even more riders.
“They’ll say it’s coming, and it’s 10 minutes late, 15 minutes late, and no explanation,” Belton, a 24-year-old postal worker, said June 3. “Then it’s so very crowded and there aren’t enough trains.”
Christie, 51, a potential 2016 presidential candidate who favors less government spending, in October 2010 canceled the tunnel project, which had been in planning since 1995. The Republican cited potential cost overruns that would leave New Jerseyans, with the highest property taxes in the U.S., on a “never-ending hook.”
A March 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that Christie overstated the price tag, and the cancellation cost the state $9 billion in business activity and $1.5 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue.
“Christie killed the project because he knew he was going to run for president and wanted to hang a giant trophy that the Republican primary folks could rally toward,” said Matt Walters, a resident of Montclair, a transit village since 2010.
“If I have a big recording job, I can’t trust New Jersey Transit to get me to New York on time,” Walters said in a telephone interview. “I go the night before and I stay with friends in Manhattan.”
In 2030, about 760,000 riders will need to cross the Hudson, a 38 percent increase from 2005, the report found. The two rail tunnels that connect New Jersey and Manhattan can function for just two more decades, and may be out of service in as little as seven years, Joseph Boardman, president and chief executive of Amtrak, the U.S. national rail operator, said at a transportation conference in New York in April.
As those tunnels age, and with no financing for an ARC alternative, Christie is pushing transit villages, part of the New Urbanism design movement to center communities on walking, biking and mass transportation.
The concept took hold in New Jersey in 1998, with planning help for towns and financing and tax incentives for builders. The state’s first was in Pleasantville, near Atlantic City, in 1999. Today there are 28, including East Orange, Morristown and Elizabeth, with eight made since Christie took office. Four more are under consideration.
The governor in 2011 broadened the scope of aid for such development to entice business and jobs under the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program. Of a maximum $1.75 billion of incentives, about $1.4 billion is committed, according to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
Fewer than 10 percent of Americans want to reside in suburbs that rely on cars, though 40 percent live in those areas, according to an online survey released April 30 by the American Planning Association, a Washington-based not-for-profit group that represents city planners.
Christie understands the need for more Hudson River rail capacity and would be interested in projects that “spread the cost among all beneficiaries,” Stephen Schapiro, a spokesman for the transportation department, said in an e-mail.
“In the meantime, New Jersey Transit is maximizing capacity of the existing train lines through the use of multi-level train cars,” Schapiro said.
Adding residential housing within a half-mile of a transit station increases ridership more than any other type of development, according to the transportation department website.
New Jersey Transit, operator of the third-largest bus, rail and light-rail system in the U.S., has no estimates of how passenger ranks will swell as a result of the transit villages, according to William Smith, an agency spokesman.
Of its 1,113 rail cars, 429 are multilevel, with as much as 20 percent more seating capacity than single-level models. The double-deckers are being upgraded to add 459 seats, and the agency has “no short-term plans to order additional cars,” Smith said in an e-mail.
In North Brunswick, where transit-village construction is under way on 212 acres formerly owned by Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), key rail components have yet to be built to serve a planned 1,875 residential units, 375 hotel rooms and big-box retail anchors. The project requires New Jersey Transit to build a $30 million station. A loop to ease train turnarounds, whose cost Smith could place only in the hundreds of millions of dollars, is still in the planning stages.
Christie has called the North Brunswick station “an investment in your town and our entire region.”
“Your new train station will shorten commutes, reduce congestion and pollution and improve access to Trenton, Newark, New York City and numerous other destinations,” the governor wrote in a March 1, 2013, letter posted to OurTownCenter.info, the Internet site for the project, called Main Street North Brunswick.
“The administration really doesn’t care if people take trains -- they’re just using this as an excuse for more development,” said Jeffrey Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, a nonprofit conservation group. “Otherwise they’d be investing in transit as well.”
Even those who say New Jersey mass transportation needs improvement agree that an imperfect train ride is preferable to driving in the most densely populated U.S. state.
A fast commute was part of the reason Hana Aviv and her husband sold their home in Essex Fells and bought and combined two penthouses in the Vue, a 192-unit New Brunswick high-rise in the transit-village district whose developer received state and federal grants and tax credits.
Aviv, a 59-year-old associate pathology professor at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, now walks to work, and her husband takes the train to his office in Newark.
“We had two cars, and now we have just one,” she said in a telephone interview. “We just use it on the weekends. I’m very happy to leave it in the garage.”
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