HART is a coalition of citizen-activists associated with, but not officially representing, NJ Sierra Club, Association of Rail Passengers, Committee for Better Transit, Tri-State Transportation Campaign and local Hudson County neighborhood associations. Established in 1997, we seek more citizen participation and government accountability in the transportation infrastructure decision-making process. We generally favor mass-transit and rail freight solutions to our regional transportation problems in the belief that they are more environmentally and economically justifiable than more roads and cars. We favor Bergen Arches Study option T2 - LRT from Newport (on Jersey City waterfront) to the Meadowlands. We are submitting these comments because we wish to establish a public record of events that occurred and to suggest remedies for reform of the transportation planning process.
We became involved with the Bergen Arches in 1999, when then-Mayor of Jersey City, Bret Schundler, aggressively lobbied then-Governor Whitman and the NJTPA (North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority) for a highway-only use of the abandoned Bergen Arches rail corridor. The NJTPA was considering a TIP (Transportation Improvement Plan) that included a highway feasibility study. We spoke to the NJTPA on 2-16-99 and convinced them to amend the TIP to broaden the scope of the study to include non-highway options. Public officials confirmed that federal law and regulations require a study of all alternatives. During the ensuing months, there was intense wrangling over the study process, study leadership, and composition of the Bergen Arches public advisory panel. Two representatives from HART, Mia Scanga and Steve Lanset, both residents of downtown Jersey City, were finally included in the Bergen Arches Task Force. The NJ Department of Transportation (NJDOT) was delegated management of the study process. And the firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff was selected as the lead consultant to the study.
Unfortunately, since the beginning, the behavior of NJDOT has done little to assuage public mistrust due to its reputation as a political and intellectual captive of financially powerful highway construction interests in the state. NJDOT Commissioner Jamie Fox, at the opening of the Hoboken HBLRT station in late September, expressed the need to "get more people out of their cars." Governor McGreevey has placed renewed emphasis on "smart growth" and the State Plan, intended to curtail development sprawl. And the State transportation planning community has envisioned a "seamless web of public transit" to the Hudson waterfront. Yet, NJDOT rolls on, out of control, mindlessly promoting, designing and building highways everywhere, as it has for the past century. NJDOT's relentless highway-building has destroyed New Jersey cities and countryside alike. It is all the more puzzling, when one considers the NJTPA's broadly-scoped transportation planning mandates, that this study was delegated to NJDOT. It is time for State officials to translate their expressed intentions into meaningful action.
In our case, as in other transportation projects across New Jersey, NJDOT frequently rides roughshod over citizens and communities. In this letter, we discuss how NJDOT's mindset led it to employ flawed analytical methods steeped in narrow highway-building assumptions that constrain thought, limit options, and ignore intrusive realities. "People cause traffic congestion, not cars." asserted Mr. Jody Barankin of NJDOT. We also discuss how this mindset leads NJDOT to an adversarial relationship with the citizens; it withholds information from the public, discourages open public discussion of transportation options, employs divide-and-conquer tactics, and patronizes the taxpayers that pay their salaries.
Flawed analysis and ill-defined choices
The Bergen Arches Study was, at its core, a traffic congestion study to count the cars and ferret out the most clogged roadway intersections. It should have taken a more panoptic view of corridor transportation issues within the context of a broader, multi-disciplinary regional perspective. It failed to integrate its transportation concerns with land use, fundamental environmental issues in Jersey City such as air quality and noise levels, projected economic impacts, and the Bergen Arches' value as a historical-cultural resource. It should have started with the more fundamental questions of how people travel in and out of downtown Jersey City each day, i.e. whence they come, whither they go, and how they travel. The majority of travelers to/from Newport/Pavonia and Exchange Place travel, as it turns out, by mass transit. See Newport 2001 Annual Update and Comprehensive Report, prepared by Vollmer Associates LLP, August 2001. How can "best uses" be determined by a mere traffic study? The City of Jersey City, for its part, deferred to NJDOT and failed to take meaningful action to broaden the study or to assert the interests of its residents. The Study was also peppered with disturbing factual lapses, such as significantly inaccurate figures for the 2000 population and downtown workforce of Jersey City. Jersey City's population in 2000 was quoted at 224,130, a figure provided by NJTPA, whereas the official count is 240,055 according to the 2000 U.S. Census and 228,537 from the 1990 census.
Environmental issues such as air and noise, we were told by NJDOT, would be studied later, after, not before, they nominated the "best uses". No air quality, noise level, or health statistics were adduced to the Study. That seems quite illogical.
Had they studied air quality impacts, they would have had to face the facts of Jersey City's high levels of ozone and particulates. Not to mention Jersey City's air quality-related health issues, such as unusually high levels of asthma. Given that much of the Bergen Arches is a deep trench, what would be the air quality implications for drivers and passengers in motor vehicles that pass thru?
Had they studied potential noise impacts, they would likely have been forced to consider the impacts of motor vehicle noise on the health of local citizens and their quality of life and of motor vehicle vibrations on buildings and infrastructure in the state/local historic districts.
The potential economic impacts of alternative transportation decisions were not analyzed. They would certainly be more far-reaching than the trifling mobility improvement, 6% reduction of estimated VHTs (Vehicle Hours Traveled) at best (assuming correct capacity estimates), projected by the Study from the most promising transportation projects. If such small returns are considered the sum total of benefits from such expensive contemplated transportation improvements, we probably should abandon them. We should also consider the economic impacts flowing from air quality and noise problems, including the added costs of corrective medical care and abatement structures such as the ugly highway noise containment walls that are ubiquitous in other densely populated areas of New Jersey. These would likely lower residential and commercial property values in an urbanized Hudson County already hard-hit by industrial decline. We can't help but notice how, on the other hand, mass transit improvements, such as Mid-Town Direct and Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, have raised property values in their respective corridors. And let's not forget that PATH has been the engine propelling residential and commercial development in downtown Jersey City.
Businesses in Jersey City, as well as residents, would be affected by a Bergen Arches decision. Our highway-biased transportation system forces employers to subsidize vast amounts of parking space in order to attract and retain skilled, sophisticated workers. A highway-riven downtown would likely repel such workers, who are also attracted by urban surroundings that offer palatable lunching and socializing venues, shopping, culture, and even nearby residential options. We only have to look at Manhattan and Hoboken to see confirmation of the attraction of high-quality urban environments clustered around mass-transit.
When considering the employment options afforded by different transportation modes, we need to consider the probable beneficial effects of providing mobility to jobs in the Meadowlands and beyond for both white-collar and blue-collar urban residents. That seems not to have entered the Study.
At the very least, the Study should have provided estimated cost figures for the various recommended "uses". How can the public make its own judgement concerning the comparative costs and benefits of different transportation projects and knowledgeably express preferences without cost estimates?
We were advised by the Study managers that land use considerations did not enter this Study in large part because, in New Jersey, land use decisions are delegated to municipalities and the State Plan. Jersey City has made good-faith efforts, excessive tax abatements aside, to encourage urban transportation infrastructure (PATH) redevelopment and compact, dense, mixed used redevelopment of brownfields. Such efforts are consistent with the State Plan. Yet, NJDOT seems to march to a different drummer. We believe that the State can give teeth to the State Plan by using the power of the purse string and environmental permits over infrastructure projects to influence the decisions of municipalities and counties. Isn't it time that NJDOT also be required to support the State Plan through its actions?
Even on it's own terms, the Study failed to adequately address key road capacity issues. First, it did not consider the impacts of the alternative uses on the strained parking situation in downtown Jersey City. For example, the parking rate at 111 Pavonia Ave. is $320/month, which is the norm for office & residential buildings downtown. Nor did it sufficiently consider impacts on lateral movement along the waterfront, considering the tremendous amount of development occurring at Exchange Place. Nor did it grapple with the potential impact of thousands of Bergen Arches motor vehicles flowing into effectively cul-de-sac waterfront communities such as Harsimus Cove, Paulus Hook, and Hamilton Park. How are we to factor in the impacts of a waterfront area that will include a developed Northeast Quadrant in Newport, an occupied Goldman Sacks building (parking for 1500 cars and 500 limousines) and a built-out Liberty Harbor North (7,000 units)? And how will the Holland Tunnel be magically protected from additional traffic flows generated by a Bergen Arches highway/HOV/busway? Should it be?
And what if continued commercial development pressures reduce the amount of available parking spaces? There are higher value commercial and retail uses for land employed for parking. Another influence on the supply of parking is the willingness of employers to subsidize them. Insufficient mass transit and the cost of parking subsidies might well encourage some employers to pack up and leave town.
NJDOT and its lead consultants, Parsons Brinckerhoff, asserted that more efficient traffic flows, i.e. highway solutions, would alleviate air quality problems because vehicles would spend less time idled in traffic jams. They refused to grapple honestly with the evident paradox that more efficient traffic flows could induce more demand for roadways, i.e. invite more traffic as drivers seek the quickest ways to their destinations. In fact, to a great extent, people adjust their driving and parking to available roads and parking facilities. Housing markets also adjust to available transportation.
The Study favored HOV lanes thru the Bergen Arches and residential downtown Jersey City. As we have seen, in other places in New Jersey, HOV (high occupancy vehicles) lanes easily fail due to lapses in police enforcement and rising public anger. They merely provide the infrastructure for easy conversion to general highway use. HOV lanes through the Bergen Arches would be another stealth highway thru Hudson County. NJDOT's favored HOV/Busway alternatives were enlisted in favor of extending the Secaucus Connector from the Turnpike and Tonnele Circle to the Waterfront. Such an extended Secaucus Connector, we were told, can only be justified by extension thru the Bergen Arches. If the Secaucus Connector and a Bergen Arches roadway are two segments of a full highway, then this may be seen as an attempt at legally-impermissible segmentation of the intended highway.
The Study provided little or no insight into the overall regional transportation system. How does the Bergen Arches fit into the picture with MOTBY, Portway, Greenville Yards, Newark Bay/Kill Van Kull, and cross-Hudson freight discussions? What impacts would our decision on the Bergen Arches have on regional freight rail and port development? Also, how would the no-build and different "best uses" impact on the performance of current mass transit systems?
The Study contained no consideration of a 2 inner freight tracks, 2 outer LRT tracks option for the Bergen Arches.
There were obvious problems with the weighted scoring of the "best uses". The most fundamental problem was that the Task Force was not consulted either before the Study or during the Study about the relative weights to be assigned to the different evaluative criteria.
Arbitrarily small weights were assigned to stakeholders' input (50 points!), reflecting NJDOT's anti-urban bias, and urban environmental concerns (100 points!). Excessive weights for mobility and accessibility, 200 points each, also suggested a strong suburban commuter bias, reflecting an underlying assumption that commuters must be accommodated at almost any cost. If many people working on the waterfront don't want to brave the traffic and refuse to take public transit, they have the option of living nearby. Today, a variety of housing options exist. This would strengthen Jersey City and other existing urban centers and combat sprawl. Making a suburban commute easier would have the opposite effect. The way to further the goals of the State Plan is through specific public investment decisions, not pious verbiage.
Although two of the most heavily-weighted scoring categories, "access" and "mobility", appear to complement each other, they may also work against each other. We note that, in one of the more prescient and compelling works in the literature of transportation and urban growth, Schaeffer and Sklar's Access for All ( Columbia U. Press, 1980) excessive auto mobility was viewed as destructive of improved access, especially for the young, the old, the infirm and the poor. How has this been scored?
One final point about the scoring game: we were truly dismayed to learn from written comments of Hudson County planner Stephen Marks to the NJTPA concerning this Study. He reported that the relative weights assigned the different evaluation categories were radically revised between the September 18, 2002 technical meeting and the October 10, 2002 Task Force meeting. 100 points were originally assigned each to access, mobility, stakeholder support, feasibility, and environmental impact. Then, without explanation, the weights were changed to access (200), mobility (200), environmental criteria (100), feasibility (70), and stakeholder support (50). This obviously skewed the results in favor of highway solutions because of the disproportionate weights given to access and mobility.
Adversarial relations with citizens-taxpayers
From the beginning, NJDOT, represented by Mr. Jody Barankin, took a manipulative command-and-control approach to the Bergen Arches Task Force.
Information was strictly rationed out. The overall estimated process and timetable were never made clear or posted on NJDOT's website. The Task Force was not asked for its opinions about either the Study process or the structure of the Final Report to be produced. There has been no clear information about the transportation corridor planning and development process following presentation of the Final Report and the role and manner of public input after that.
NJDOT's Bergen Arches website was implemented many months into the Study after constant prodding from HART. It contained no information about the status of the Study until the draft final report was released. NJDOT did not even update the website with the location and time of the public meeting held at Dickinson High School on October 23rd. No technical documents or consultant reports were ever posted to the website. No meeting notes about the technical presentations were provided before the meetings either directly to the Task Force members or on the website. Skimpy notes were provided by NJTPA after the meetings. This made it difficult for Task Force members and other citizens to make comments and ask questions in a timely and knowledgeable fashion at the more technically detailed consultant presentations. This also heightened suspicion of and anger at NJDOT.
Task Force meetings were mostly held in places with poor lighting and acoustics, primarily the Jersey City City Hall Council Chambers. No microphones were provided. Some of the consultants and citizen speakers were barely audible. Oftentimes, it was not possible to look directly at a speaker because there was a bright lighting fixture on the wall directly behind his head in the dusky cavernous chamber. The June 13th Task Force meeting was held in the rear of the Council Chambers next to the main entry doors while several local artists had their opening party directly behind the doors in the rotunda area! Mia Scanga and Steve Lanset, who attended the advisory board meeting, could barely hear even though they sat in the front rows. This represented careless meeting preparation at best and NJDOT's cavalier, scornful, patronizing attitude toward the public at worst.
NJDOT obstructed efforts to discuss the Bergen Arches in the media. One public Task Force member, Mia Scanga, submitted questions in advance for an interview of Mr. Tony DeJohn of Parsons-Brinckerhoff on her public-access cable TV show, which airs in 6 Hudson County towns including Jersey City. Although her questions were designed primarily to elicit information rather than to make tendentious statements, she was rebuffed by NJDOT. Parsons-Brinckerhoff consultants were told not to talk to Ms. Scanga in front of a TV camera.
Public members of the Task Force were not invited to the technical meetings with industry and public transportation agencies. This indicated a less-than-good-faith effort to engage the public in the planning process.
Meetings were not advertised in the newspapers or on the City's Government Channel 1, which would have cost nothing. Howard Stein Hudson, NJDOT's public relations firm for the Study, at the October 10th meeting assured the task force members that they would advertise in the Jersey Journal and Channel 1 but we saw nothing. Only HART's extensive email lists and website, www.hartwheels.org, alerted most of the public who attended the October 23rd meeting. We found the public outreach/ notification by Howard Stein Hudson to be quite inadequate. We can't help but think all of this was by design by Mr. Barankin of NJDOT, but we have fought plenty of other battles and are not easily dissuaded. This project is no exception.
We found that the Study process fostered the illusion of public participation, scientific objectivity, good-faith environmental review, and adherence to the spirit of federal planning regulations, all in the service of a circumscribed highways-first mindset at NJDOT. We intend to share our findings with other concerned citizens around the State. We vote NO against any rubber tire options for the Bergen Arches. Should they be posed again, we will organize the community against them.