Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Op-Ed: Toll hikes put more traffic on local roads leaving bicyclists and pedestrians in greater peril

Living in North Brunswick, every time there is a toll increase on the Turnpike my town sees a marked increase in traffic (particularly trucks) on Routes 1 and 130.  Without fail, some of these drivers find their way onto our local streets, including large trucks, where bicyclists and pedestrians are very common.

All across the state, predictions are being made that drivers will change their driving habits to avoid paying the higher tolls (1,2). Instead of being on the highways built to handle large volumes of high-speed traffic, where bicyclists and pedestrians are not allowed, more cars, truck and buses will be on streets intended for small volumes of local motor vehicle traffic, where bicyclists and pedestrians are common.

Yesterday's 50% toll increase on the Parkway and 53% on the Turnpike, along with the prior round of toll hikes in 2008 is part of a policy shift in Trenton to use the toll roads and the revenues they produce as a substitute to raising New Jersey's 3rd lowest in the nation, gas tax (only the fossil fuel producing states of Alaska and Wyoming are lower).  Since a good percentage of those driving on New Jersey's toll roads, particularly the Turnpike, are out-of-state drivers, policy makers in Trenton are using the toll roads as a cash cow to harvest out-of-state money to plug the gap in New Jersey's grossly underfunded transportation trust fund.

This policy is exceptionally shortsighted as many have said publicly (3, 4, 5).  While it's reasonable to charge drivers a premium to drive on these premium roads, using the toll revenue as a substitute to a reasonable state gas tax is not.  All that this policy will do is take motor vehicles off highways that have the capacity to handle the traffic and put them on local roads that cannot.  It also penalizes some New Jersey drivers that just happen to live near or need to use toll roads while letting some ride on other people's coattails.  The rich folks in Morris and Somerset Hunterdon Counties have no toll roads in their counties but plenty of free expressways, while the working-class shlubs in Middlesex, Monmouth Ocean and Union counties will simply have to pay.

As for interstate drivers just passing through, there is also major incentive to avoid the toll roads. A round-trip for a 6-axle truck on the entire length of the New Jersey Turnpike now costs over $113! For most working class truck drivers, being able to avoid that cost is worth an extra hour or so in traffic.  Close to me, truck traffic was already very heavy on River Road in Piscataway which is part of one of those alternative, toll-free truck routes.  Truckers come down I 287 connect to Rt 18 via River Rd and then continue to Rt 1 and ultimately I 295 and I 95.  It just happens that River Road is also a critical route for cyclists needing to go west from New Brunswick, Highland Park and Rutgers University.  Members of local cycling clubs including the Rutgers Cycling Team can often be seen traveling on River Road to the hills to the west in Somerset County.  If a cyclist needs to go between the county seats of New Brunswick and Somerville, River Road is the only road that will get one there without detours that would add a significant amount of extra distance.  Additional trucks on River Road will surely put these cyclists at greater risk.

I can't blame these truck drivers for using River Road to avoid the Turnpike.  I too do everything I can to avoid New Jersey's toll roads when I drive my car.  And just like myself, most drivers do have a choice to either pay for the convenience of the toll roads or opt to deal with a little bit of extra traffic and budget more time driving on the surface roads.  In this time of economic stress it is likely that this new round of toll hikes will see even greater numbers of drivers choosing to save their money and go with the second choice, particularly truck drivers.  Besides petitioning over the long-term to reverse this bad transportation policy, I guess all that we can do in the meantime is just hope that these diverted drivers don't kill any bicyclists or pedestrians.

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