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Bergen Record: How a plan for buses could be compromise for controversial Turnpike-widening plan

By Colleen Wilson

In a debate over the wisdom of adding even more lanes heading into the narrow tube of the Holland Tunnel from North Jersey, two arguments have dominated.

The one against the plan concerns the environment. The case for it focuses on safety.

Now, there’s a third idea up for debate — making the expansion and safety upgrades at the Holland Tunnel, but using the widened highway for a dedicated bus lane. Robert Menendez Jr., who may soon represent the 8th Congressional District in the Holland Tunnel area, has floated a plan to include buses because the $4.7 billion highway-widening project had become “polarizing.”

Menendez proposed the expanded roadway be used for a dedicated bus lane and to create a truck-only exit and entrance ramp to bypass local Bayonne streets en route to the ports, according to an op-ed published last month.

Menendez said there is room to make it a more popular mass transportation corridor via bus rapid transit and dedicated bus lanes because of the population and business growth in Newark, Bayonne and Jersey City, the three cities affected by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s proposal.

“You could create, I believe, a lot of demand and ridership on that line by making that available because … it’s a corridor, which is seeing increased growth,” he said in an interview.

But his potential compromise hasn’t gained much traction with the Turnpike Authority, or at least not yet.

Tom Feeney, a spokesman at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, wouldn’t say whether agency officials were taking Menendez’s proposal under consideration, but said they appreciated his “thoughtful suggestions, his support for infrastructure investment, and his concern for the interests of the communities along the Extension.”

The widening plan and the backlash

The Turnpike Authority proposal, which was included in its 2020 capital plan, is to replace an 8.1-mile, elevated stretch of the Turnpike in four phases.

The first phase would replace the outdated, 66-year-old Newark Bay Bridge that leads to Newark Liberty International Airport; the second phase begins at the access point trucks use for the Bayonne ports and goes north to Liberty State Park; the third and fourth phases continue north to the Holland Tunnel entrance. There are nine toll lanes heading to the Holland Tunnel, with just two lanes of traffic through the tubes in either direction.

The project proposal includes various levels of widening:

  • Four lanes in each direction and shoulder space on a replaced Newark Bay Bridge;
  • Three lanes and shoulder in each direction from Exit 14A to the Columbus Drive Exit;
  • And adding shoulders from there to Jersey Avenue.

About 80% of the proposed project area uses elevated structures, which the Turnpike Authority said are in need of replacement.

Since the beginning of the year, opposition to the project has grown louder with a coalition of environmentalists and local officials, including Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, coming out against the project. They filed a formal petition earlier this year against the project, saying it is out of compliance with the governor’s executive orders to reduce greenhouse gases and will worsen congestion over time, especially at the Holland Tunnel, where traffic from a widened highway would still have to narrow into the same two tubes.

Doug O’Malley, director of advocacy group Environment New Jersey, said widening a highway for cars and trucks will worsen pollution, which is why more analysis and alternative solutions need to be considered.

“It’s worth more time to have an open process to decide what the best options are for the entire region and whether a dedicated (bus rapid transit) line is the right solution,” O’Malley said, referring to the idea that there be a dedicated lane to express bus service on this stretch of the Turnpike.

The petition was denied by the Turnpike Authority and state Department of Transportation and Gov. Phil Murphy came out in favor of the project in August. The Democratic governor, who has championed new offshore wind projects and other green initiatives, said the rise of electric vehicles and improved mass transportation at NJ Transit will alleviate environmental concerns.

Highway expansion has come under scrutiny nationally because of conversations around induced demand, the theory that more highway lanes only temporarily relieve congestion because people will increasingly drive on a less-congested route, eventually making it congested again. The Biden administration has even dedicated funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to enable communities to dismantle highways.

“If you’re going to add a lane and it’s BRT that’s great, more people will shift and probably take that bus because it’s now more convenient and faster than sitting in your car,” said Robert Noland, director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. BRT is an acronym for “bus rapid transit.”

But, he added, “The traffic will come back, it’s not going to solve congestion.”