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Experts suggest ways to unclog road congestion

By , - Last modified: September 11, 2018 at 7:26 AM
Bumper‑to‑bumper traffic along Route 287 in Edison.
Bumper‑to‑bumper traffic along Route 287 in Edison. - ()

For those who do a lot of traveling along New Jersey highways, the following statistics will likely pro-duce more of a yawn than surprise: According to U.S. News and World Report, the Garden State is ranked 48th for commute time among the 50 states and 47th for road quality.

In addition, “traffic congestion costs New Jersey residents a total of $5.2 billion annually and $861 per driver annually in the form of lost time and wasted fuel,” wrote TRIP, a nonprofit organization that researches surface transportation issues, in its 2015 report “New Jersey Transportation by the Numbers: Meeting the State’s Need for Safe, Smooth and Efficient Mobility.”

“As far as I’m concerned they’re [roads and highways] on life support,” said Gordon Meth, a transportation and traffic-signal engineer with Lancaster, Pa.-based Robson Forensic.

To be fair, the state is continuously looking at and working on road projects. The home page at the New Jersey Department of Transportation website lists several ongoing projects. So do websites for the New Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization and Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. The latter three are the state’s metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, which are regionally based, federally authorized groups responsible for evaluating and overseeing transportation improvement projects in New Jersey.

In just the NJTPA region, which encompasses 13 counties in the northern and central parts of the state, there was nearly $1.7 billion slated for road, bridge and related NJDOT projects and programs in the 2018 fiscal year.

To the driving public, however, congestion seems to be getting worse — construction or not.

David Behrend, communications and government affairs director for the NJTPA, said the MPOs take a “fix-it-first” approach, with safety the top priority, when deciding which projects go to the head of the line.

“Our infrastructure is fairly old, more heavily used than it was designed to handle, and so we do need to make critical investments to maintain the network,” he said.  

He pointed to the Route 495 Bridge remediation as an example. The bridge was built in 1938 and is “rated as structurally deficient and functionally obsolete,” according to NJDOT.

Though there is a lane being closed in each direction while remediation is ongoing, “imagine that road being completely shut down because of an emergency situation for repairs,” Behrend said.

He also explained that NJTPA takes a big-picture perspective to address potential transportation issues. For example, it has developed what is called Plan 2045: Connecting North Jersey, a long-term transportation plan for that section of the state.

For their parts, both the Murphy administration and the Legislature recognize the need to address road issues. The administration notes the state already is investing in 39,000 miles of public roadways.

Finding new ways to pay for the work that needs be done is always difficult, especially given New Jersey’s mounting fiscal woes. One being looked at to raise funds and smooth traffic is the implementation of dedicated high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that would allow motorists to pay a toll to bypass others slowed by congestion.

What's the plan?

Gordon Meth of Robson Forensics says bottlenecks on roadways like I‑287 can be reduced by modifying their off‑ramps.
Gordon Meth of Robson Forensics says bottlenecks on roadways like I‑287 can be reduced by modifying their off‑ramps. - ()

At the recent Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey’s Transportation Summit in Woodbridge, ranking members of the transportation committee called for a statewide master transportation plan.

“As we continue to grow out businesses and industries and develop new homes, our challenge remains maintenance of our roadways and bridges and dealing with the congestion that we see today,” said Assembly Transportation Vice Chair Patricia Egan Jones, D-5th District.

However, some see the statewide NJDOT plan already in place as the best starting point for attacking the problem.

“Any new plan must be cognizant of NJDOT’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) and consider the priorities already laid out,” said Ali Maher, director of central administration at Rutgers University’s Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Meanwhile, Meth, who studies traffic patterns and has designed roadways, believes a new master plan might be a duplication of efforts from what is happening at the MPO level.

“There is effectively a master plan for NJDOT,” he said. “They [already] have the TIP. They have gone through committee and they evaluated them and put funding in place. They are required to do that by law. The TIP is more of an implementation document. … What do you want to get with a master plan and where do you want to go with it?”

Maher sees great value in how NJDOT “has expanded the use of pavement preservation treatment allowing a significant increase in pavement lanes treated each year at reduced cost. Applying a pavement preservation treatment at the right time, on the right project, with quality materials and construction is a critical investment strategy for optimizing infrastructure performance.”

He points to new rehabilitation techniques such as cold and hot in-place recycling, which has led to elimination of cracks and rutting; and pavement management systems.

Taking the smaller route

At first glance, some of the interstate highways could benefit from widening similar to what was completed on the New Jersey Turnpike in 2014 and is ongoing on the Garden State Parkway.

“The quick answer is yes, you could widen the interstates like they did to the turnpike, but not double the lanes,” Maher explained. “The thought is we could easily add a lane to the inside for much of the interstate system. It would entail widening existing bridge decks and superstructures and substructures for the interstate carrying bridges, and in some instances replacing the bridges over the interstate due to lateral constrictions by existing piers. Furthermore, given the geologic stratification in the state, the widening to the inside or outside for that matter would likely be simpler on I-295 and I-195.”

But the cost of such work is prohibitive, especially for a state besieged by financial liabilities. That’s why looking at fixing smaller roadways and off-ramps instead can be important alternatives, say the experts.

Meth often travels I-287 and believes the bottlenecks on that road can be reduced by modifying the highway’s off-ramps.

“Look at your traffic problems on your worst roads,” said Meth. “All of them relate to certain ramps that are backing up. On I-287 to Route 24 they used to have one ramp lane [dedicated to egress] and they made it into two and a lot of traffic problems went away. Too many of our ramps aren’t designed well enough; we have tried to make due. Everyone gets forced into one or two lanes. That is what breaks down our systems. A lot of times if you make your ramps better, the rest of your system will work better.”

Meth analogizes highways and roads to pipes and cars as what’s flowing through them.

“Do you have a bunch of bigger pipes or do you have smaller pipes to bleed off your demand?” he asked. “If you widen I-287, you are going to have a lot of impact. You’re going to have to take a lot of land [and] going to have to rebuild entire interchanges; whereas, if I look at Route 206, there are similar [environmental] impacts.

“But if I’m only looking to widen the road by an extra 24 feet and it doesn’t have a lot of bridges and structures that might be a lot cheaper, I do believe creating a more flexible system of arterial roads that helps the medium-distance travel will bleed off traffic on the bigger roads.”

For the arterial roads, Meth says there are relatively inexpensive and proven ways to reduce travel times, such as improving the approximately 8,000 traffic lights in New Jersey, half of which are owned by the state.

“You could add a new central communications system and do upgrades to every traffic light in the state and get better [traffic] flow and operation across the state,” Meth said. “That could be as little an investment as $10,000 to $15,000 for each light. You would be able to reduce traffic congestion just with that.”

Behrend says NJTPA is looking at roads where improving the signals could lessen congestion.

“We are now seeing the ability to use adaptive signal technology. These signals are communicating with one another and adapting the timing based on the conditions on the ground,” he said.

Another solution to decreasing congestion is to get cars off the road and create more pedestrian sidewalks and bike lanes.

“New Jersey must increase investment in infrastructure such as bike lanes, crosswalks and other pedestrian and bicycling safety features,” says Maher. “Such measures also reduce vehicle speeds and accidents between automobiles and active transportation users.”

Meth believes once gas-tax funding kicks in and planning is finalized, newer road projects will begin to happen.

“It is just going to take time because the transportation fund was underfunded for so long and there were no pipeline of projects that were explored that could be set into motion,” he said.

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