The Northeast Corridor (left) and the New Jersey Turnpike (right) compete with each other across the state. Photo: David Pfeiffer / Flickr.
When our governments did not simply continue to build roads and keep the tolls low, people needed alternatives. As car traffic has increased on the New Jersey Turnpike and parallel highways and the price of gas has risen, people have steadily switched to trains and buses. The result is that Northeast Corridor passengers now subsidize the rest of the Amtrak network, and a whole range of bus operators from Eastern up to Vamoose Gold make enough money to not just pay for gas, wages and maintenance, but for new buses, and even generate a profit.
Those options are under threat now from unchecked government spending to interfere in the market, and the person directing this interference is none other than that darling of the right and famed budget-cutter, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. You may remember, specifically, that Christie cancelled the ARC Tunnel project because he thought it would place too great a burden on future generations of New Jersey taxpayers.
It turns out that Christie didn't just lie about New Jersey's share of the cost and redirect three billion dollars to road projects. Tri-State has the news (from the Star-Ledger) that even three billion dollars isn't enough to finish those projects, and the Turnpike Authority will borrow an additional $1.4 billion to complete them - putting that burden on future generations of New Jersey drivers and taxpayers.
One of those projects in particular is a really bad idea and could seriously undermine transit in the Northeast Corridor. There is a bottleneck on the New Jersey Turnpike between Mansfield and New Brunswick where the highway is "only" six lanes wide. A lot of that $4.4 billion is being spent to widen the Turnpike to twelve lanes in that section.
Eventually, as with most road expansions, those twelve lanes will probably be just as congested as the six lanes are today,. Or maybe not. If other driving costs like gas and insurance continue to rise, driving may drop there just as it is all over the country. But for a while it will be smooth sailing, and that could spell trouble for Northeast Corridor transit.
It's no coincidence that the Pennsylvania and Lehigh Valley railroads started to lose money after the Turnpike was opened, or that the Erie and New York Central lost money after the New York State Thruway was built, or the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western went downhill after Routes 78 and 80 opened. The Northeast Corridor, which is the successor to the Pennsylvania Railroad, is just beginning to recover.
Just as those highways drew passengers from the parallel railroads, the time savings on this newly widened Turnpike will draw passengers from the trains and buses of the Northeast Corridor. This is massive government-sponsored, debt-financed sabotage of a profitable market, done by a Republican with a reputation as a budget-cutter. Combined with the way the Democrats gummed up curbside bus pickup here in New York City, we may well see a drop in Northeast Corridor bus and train ridership over the next several years. I hope I'm wrong.
After the Port Authority raised tolls in 2010 there was a huge stink. After Christie cancelled the ARC Tunnel there was outrage from transit advocates. So far this massive highway widening hasn't gotten much more than a few angry Tri-State blog posts, and nothing from budget hawks. Will anything change?