Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sandy Repairs Will Put NJ's "Complete Street Cred" To The Test

Six months after Hurricane Sandy damaged roads and bridges in New Jersey's coastal zone, plans are moving forward to make repairs on major roads.  Most notable is Route 35 between Point Pleasant and Island Beach State Park that was severely damaged to the point of obliteration in Mantoloking. Concurrently Sandy repairs are also helping to expedite planned improvements to the Route 72 Manahawking Bay Bridge between Stafford Township and Long Beach Island. At various points NJDOT officials and press releases have indicated that complete streets treatments will be included in both projects. But the slowly emerging project details are pointing to marginal improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians, and it looks likely that this once in a lifetime opportunity to make significant safety improvements for non-motorized users on these corridors will be punted decades into the future.

Last week the Tri State Transportation Campaign did a comprehensive critique of the upcoming Route 35 reconstruction between Point Pleasant and Mantoloking on their MTR blog. The advertised bid notice only indicates replacement of sidewalk and curb where required. No mention of bike lanes or expanded sidewalks even though the right of way has plenty of available space. Construction will begin in June. Other phases will repair Route 35 down to Island Beach State Park in the very near future.

The Route 72 Causeway only suffered minor damage from the storm, however rehabilitating and twinning the existing main Bay Bridge has been in the pipeline for several years. The new eastbound causeway will begin construction later this year and will take 3 years. After completion the existing causeway will be taken out of service for reconstruction will become a westbound only causeway after completion.

Under New Jersey's complete streets policy Route 72 does not necessarily have to be retrofitted as a complete street because the project began just before the policy took effect. But plans now show that the main bay bridges will include 6 foot protected walkway (westbound) along with 13 foot "bikable" shoulders (note that the NJ Supreme Court has declared bicycling in the shoulder to be technically illegal) but the eastern trestle bridges will only have 6 foot bike lanes ("upgraded" from 5 feet in the original proposal) and an unprotected 6 foot sidewalk.  The island portions of the causeway already have very wide shoulders and would receive minor alterations.  Finally, the mainland approach to the bridge would require bicyclists to navigate across high-speed on and off ramps, something that can be uneasy for even experienced cyclists.

We applaud NJDOT's decision to voluntarily add bike lanes and narrow walkways to the bridge sections. However as we reported here in 2010 it is our opinion that minimalist bike lanes and 6 foot walkway are not and appropriate way to safely and comfortably accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians on a major highway bridge with a 50mph speed limit.  We believe that the smart engineers at NJDOT can come up with a much better solution such as a 10-12 foot wide protected shared use path on the westbound side of the bridges. The 3 year time frame before construction should give NJDOT enough time to modify the bridge plans. More importantly, it is unlikely that the causeways will be rehabbed for another 50 years (fingers crossed). So why not do it right this time?

An interesting side note to the project is that a bicycle and pedestrian shuttle service will be operating during construction. The Island does have two bus routes connecting to the mainland via the County operated Ocean Ride bus. The buses don't have bike racks and both routes only run one round trip per week on Tuesdays. No kidding!

For post storm repairs New Jersey can look to New Orleans for inspiration. So far NOLA has added 70 miles of bike lanes as part of its post-Katrina infrastructure rebuild. We can set the example for the rest of the state and country and help propel the complete streets movement into high gear.

Andrew J. Besold contributed to this article and supports the opinions expressed there in.