One of the main topics that came up repeatedly during the jousting of the gubernatorial election was the sorry state of New Jersey’s transportation infrastructure.
It’s fitting that the scandal that undid all of Chris Christie’s momentum was Bridgegate — sort of like infrastructure hitting back at him, when you think about it. Under his watch, NJ Transit fares surged while service plunged, the trans-Hudson rail tunnel project was scrapped and bridge maintenance took a backseat — unless you count various restoration projects funded with the tunnel money, which allowed Christie to fend off a gas tax increase until his presidential aspirations were no longer viable.
Obviously, the eight years’ neglect of a heavily used system is going to have to be a top priority for Phil Murphy. The state is heavily dependent on its proximity to Manhattan for employment; if the existing rail tunnels are closed for maintenance before the Gateway project is completed — a definite possibility, especially post-Sandy — capacity will collapse and already-long commutes will become nightmares. That will put more drivers on overstressed bridges and tunnels, creating traffic headaches that will make well-salaried professionals think twice about whether it’s worth it to live across the river.
Those are problems for local businesses, too. New Jersey’s reputation as a good location for logistics would take a serious blow if we continue to underinvest in our highways, which would certainly give companies like Amazon pause before they invest in gigantic fulfillment centers. Beaches and other tourist attractions in the summer, ditto. Customers are more likely to stay home when the traffic snarls, especially if it becomes a regular feature. And all that is saying nothing of the lost productivity of small businesses that have to deal with employees struggling to reach work on time.
The fact that an increase in the gas tax was recently approved is good news for the state, which at least gives New Jersey a way to get its fiscal house in order on transportation. But we also need a willingness to take on the little projects that focus on keeping the system healthy, as opposed to just springing for major tunnel work. New York paid a fortune for its Second Avenue subway, which arguably could have been better used maintaining existing services. We hope Murphy is comfortable sending press releases about repairs to roads and bridges, and doesn’t need to have his picture taken cutting ribbons for brand-new transportation projects, because while they’re important, they’re only part of the equation.
Infrastructure is likely to be the defining topic of the next four years. We hope our next governor is as committed to the issue as he was on the campaign trail. New Jersey’s bid to reinvent itself as a hub for business depends on it.