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Hurricane Irene Highlighted Need for NJ Transit Investment

Coming on the heels of a summer of NJ Transit derailments and disruptions, the public transportation outages caused by Hurricane Irene should serve as a wake-up call for Gov. Chris Christie that investing more in public transportation — and housing, retail and office development around it — is necessary for the state.

The lack of NJ Transit service between Trenton and New Brunswick for three days after Irene swept through the Garden State packed nearby roads and left commuters frustrated. With increased investment in transit, there can be redundancy in more of the system. So if one line goes out, another is there to serve customers. This is especially important now as ridership on NJ Transit is growing — more than 247 million riders last year, almost a 10 percent increase since 2004 — and housing near transit is surviving the economic recession much better than units far away from public transportation.

According to Christopher Lineberger of the Brookings Institution, there is an insufficient supply of housing in walkable neighborhoods — walkable, urban housing represents 20 percent of the housing stock, despite demand from 50 percent of the population.

The move by Panasonic from Secaucus to Newark is proof of this growing demand for businesses near transit. Utilizing a state tax incentive, the company cited Newark’s transit system as one of the main reasons for choosing the city over Silicon Valley. Panasonic CEO Joe Taylor said he decided to move the company out of Secaucus because too many of Panasonic’s employees had to drive to work and "we couldn’t possibly demonstrate our commitment and our credibility to being a green company and ask 1,000 people to drive to work every day." Statewide, retail vacancies around transit hubs are at 14.7 percent compared with 29.7 percent in areas not near such hubs.

But as demand grows for density and compactness, the state cut funding for programs that encourage this type of growth and the transit system that supports it. In 2004, 49 percent of New Jersey’s transportation construction program was spent on public transportation. Every year since, that percentage has decreased. In 2012, the state will spend 32.9 percent on buses and rail. Commuters are becoming frustratingly aware of what this means for the transportation network: more delays, breakdowns, derailments and cancellations, not to mention more traffic as commuters cram into cars that add to poor road and bridge conditions, congestion and pollution problems.

The governor last year scuttled the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel, a project that would have doubled rail capacity between New Jersey and Manhattan. The tunnel was meant to provide redundancy in case of incidents like this summer’s derailment, which stranded 300 passengers on the tracks and caused delays for hundreds of thousands of passengers who commute in and out of Penn Station. Right now, all NJ Transit and Amtrak trains squeeze through two single-track tunnels. Amtrak spokesman Steve Klum said "additional tunnels would have been useful" when dealing with the derailment. Same goes for the outages caused by Hurricane Irene.

This spring, the governor slashed funding for the Transit Village Initiative, a nationally recognized program that helps New Jersey towns promote new development around train and bus hubs. Compact development drives economic growth by attracting business. It also reduces energy consumption, air pollution and health care costs.

If the state is committed to strengthening the economy and supporting job growth, there needs to be a more consistent and steady investment in public transportation. At times, the governor has clearly understood this. This past summer, he expanded a program that connects transit-oriented development with tax breaks and linked the action to "New Jersey’s economic recovery."

And when Montclair was designated a Transit Village in July 2010, the governor said the initiative "spurs sustainable economic growth, maximizes the value of our transit investments and benefits the environment." Hurricane Irene and derailments this summer gave us a sense of how important our public transportation network is. It is clear that the state must provide the necessary financial support to ensure redundancy and reliability in it. Restoring funding for Transit Villages, as well as increasing funding for public transportation and transit-oriented development generally, would fundamentally enhance the business, health and energy future of New Jersey.
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