State DOT gets ‘smart’ in budgeting new capital projects

More money for bridge and roadway improvements, less for projects that promote sprawl.

By: David Cambpell
   State transportation officials Monday unveiled a $2.5 billion capital budget for next year that they said promotes the concept of smart growth, with more money for bridge and roadway improvements and less for projects that promote sprawl.
   "This is a well-reasoned, affordable capital program that meets the governor’s goals of improving New Jersey’s quality of life," said Department of Transportation Commissioner James P. Fox. "It is both an environmentally friendly and economically responsible spending plan that will help shape New Jersey’s transportation future."
   Under the fiscal year 2003 spending plan, $2.6 million would go to replacement of the Harry’s Brook bridge on Princeton-Kingston Road in Princeton Township near Lake Carnegie. The new bridge would carry two 12-foot lanes with 8-foot shoulders on either side.
   In addition, the township would receive $498,900 from the DOT for roadway improvements around the municipal complex on Valley, Mount Lucas, Terhune and Cherry Hill roads.
   Another $249,400 has been set aside for intersection improvements at Rosedale and Province Line roads.
   DOT’s proposed capital budget also appropriates $100,000 for completion of the Penns Neck Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected to be issued in draft form by November and in final form by April 2003.
   The mediated EIS is the most recent attempt by the DOT to resolve several controversial issues surrounding the Millstone Bypass proposal, first submitted by the state agency in 1986.
   DOT spokesman John Dourgarian said the budget does not appropriate money for roadway construction in the Penns Neck area.
   "What the project will be depends on the EIS process, so at this point there’s really no project," he said. "When consensus is reached on what improvements, if any, are needed, we will go forward with funding."
   Mr. Dourgarian said capital spending for next year was driven by the principles of smart growth, which promote urban redevelopment over projects that may produce sprawl and consumption of open space.
   For example, Trenton would receive $16 million for improvements in the Route 29 corridor, including landscaping and construction of a bicycle-pedestrian path, and additional money would go toward revitalization projects including circulation improvements at the waterfront.
   The budget also reflects a commitment to the philosophy of "fix it first," which means statewide rehabilitation of existing infrastructure, Mr. Dourgarian continued.
   Less than 10 percent of capital spending would go for widening roads to increase capacity, while around $300 million would be spent to renovate or replace deficient bridges, he said.
   Of the roughly 5,100 bridges in New Jersey, about 876, or 17 percent, are rated structurally deficient, he said, noting that the agency plans to renovate or replace 165 of them and conduct engineering studies on an additional 135 over the next four years.
   "We’re spending more money on state bridges than ever before," Mr. Dourgarian said.
   Janine Bauer, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, criticized the DOT’s capital budget proposal, asserting it does not comply with the 2000 Transportation Trust Fund law, which mandated that the DOT use gasoline- and sales-tax revenue for infrastructure repairs and reduce the backlog of deficient bridges and roads by half in five years.
   Ms. Bauer said only $21 million of $580 million in trust fund money the DOT plans to spend will go to bridge repair.
   "DOT is using fix-it-first rhetoric, but the numbers tell the real story," she said. "The capital program makes no progress on fixing crumbling roads and bridges."
   Mr. Dourgarian said Ms. Bauer’s criticism did not take into account the federal money that makes up the balance of the $300 million being spent on bridges, and said the budget was developed with the input and consent of every county in the state.
   But Mr. Dourgarian said the DOT will not meet the five-year trust-fund deadline, saying, "It’s going to take longer, but we’re making a dent in it. We will get there."
   Susan Burrows, spokeswoman for New Jersey Future, said her organization will be looking for "aggressive progress" in smart growth when it undertakes its line-by-line analysis of the budget, but said that at first glance the DOT appeared to be headed in the right direction.
   "We do understand the kinds of changes that need to happen will come slow," Ms. Burrows said. "The governor has set a pretty high bar for moving smart growth in New Jersey, and this budget seems to listen to that."