Suburban Sprawl: Our defining feature and biggest challenge

Sprawl. Burbs. Little municipalities by the hundreds. They define New Jersey. Does they have to, going forward? Promoted by Rosi.

Everyone who’s ever driven through New Jersey has seen it. Town after town, subdivision after subdivision of vinyl-sided, single-family housing. It is one of the hallmark features of the Garden State along with our shore towns and Bruce Springsteen. Having grown up in the 20th century with the popularity of the automobile, it provided shelter for a booming post-World War II population and the millions of children born to it. But the American dream our suburbs helped to fulfill have become something of a nightmare. And as the problems that plague these towns get worse, they threaten to undermine the viability of the entire state.

Everyone knows that New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the nation, with the average property tax bill in the state coming in at $8,161. And for that ever-increasing figure, municipalities across the state are receiving fewer and fewer services as the infrastructure that serves them, such as roads, rails, water, and sewer systems age. The high cost of maintaining these basic services is in part due to the large number of individual municipalities there are in New Jersey (565 at last count). Each town manages its own police and fire departments, school districts, government, local roads, and water/sewer systems. With each town working on its own to maintain its infrastructure, there’s no hope of taking advantage of economies of scale when it comes to paying for things towns need to survive. This means towns have to rely on the state for money they can’t get through property taxes, and municipal aid from Trenton has been falling for the past several years.

As a reaction to the sheer number of towns in the state that need their own costly administration, the nonprofit organization Courage to Connect formed to promote the benefits of municipal resource sharing and outright consolidation. The first township/borough consolidation to occur since it formed, Princeton Township and Princeton Borough became one municipality in 2013. At a State of the Town address earlier this year, Mayor Liz Lempert listed out the ways this consolidation has saved the town money. The new town has fewer employees, the tax rate is lower than that of the separate towns, improved municipal services, and what Lempert calls a more responsive government. Notably, Senate President Steve Sweeney has been a proponent of municipal consolidation as a way to lower property taxes.

Another area where our suburban sprawl hurts us is the vast transportation network built to move people around it. To say that New Jersey is known for its highways almost as much as its sprawl would be an understatement. We are after all the “What exit?” state. But while New Jerseyans have traditionally loved getting in their car for most trips they take, even short ones within their own towns, they have never loved paying for it. The Transportation Trust Fund, set up in 1984 by Governor Tom Kean to pay for our roads, bridges, and trains, has failed to keep pace with the cost of keeping those assets modern and safe. Governor Christie has been notably silent on the issue for fear of the need to raise taxes at a time when he is calculating his every move should he wish to jump into the 2016 presidential race. In the meantime, less and less of the Transportation Trust Fund goes toward actual asset maintenance every day. Within the next few months, the fund could be entirely dedicated to paying off past debts. This means more bridges will become unsafe, commuting times will rise, and public transportation will face service cuts, fare increases, or, more likely, both.

Complicating the state’s transportation problems is Christie’s canceling of the ARC tunnel project by shortly after he entered office. The potential pros and cons of this project aside, it remains the case that major pieces of transportation infrastructure linking New Jersey with New York are in dire need of fixing or replacement. The trans-Hudson tunnels, badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, have been given only 20 more years of useful life before they need to be shut down by Amtrak CEO Joseph Bordman. And the 100-year old Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River frequently malfunctions, causing delays on the busiest train line in the country. Without serious attention, these problems will only get worse in the future, especially as both Amtrak and NJ Transit’s ridership numbers continue to increase year after year.

All of this not only results in a more costly commute for the state’s workers, but higher operating costs for the state’s businesses as their products encounter delays traversing the state. The transportation fund is in such dire straits that transportation advocates have joined together with community and business leaders to form Forward NJ, a unified force calling for a permanent fix to our transportation woes. And with good reason; a state with nearly 9 million people, 90% of whom drive to their daily jobs, cannot have a below-average transportation network without a seriously negative economic outcome.

So what’s the future for towns in the sprawl? It doesn’t look good. The increasing number of baby boomers hitting retirement age are finding it hard to pay their growing property taxes, leaving them with no choice but to leave for less expensive states. And millennials, that coveted demographic between roughly 18 and 34, by and large prefer the state’s older towns with walkable downtowns connected to either Philadelphia or New York by public transportation. Indeed, Dean of the Rutgers Bloustein School of Public Policy James Hughes recently appeared on NJTV News repoting on this trend, calling for the reinvention of the state's suburbs in order to remain economically competitive and socially viable in the years to come.

The facts on the ground support this notion. The places seeing investment right now tend to be the state’s older towns, both pre-war streetcar suburbs and those developed after the mainstream adoption of the personal car. In North Jersey, towns like Hoboken, Jersey City, and Newark have seen investment over the past decade, as have towns along NJ Transit’s network of trains delivering commuters into Manhattan. And in South Jersey, older towns like along the PATCO train line into Center City Philadelphia like Collingswood and Haddon Township are seeing an array of infill projects including new shops and restaurants. Even Cherry Hill, the region’s showcase post-war suburb, is seeing an uptick in projects that will densify the township. Even the state’s long-distressed cities, long abandoned by private investment in favor of far out suruban development, are seeing new money.

And cities like Trenton, Newark, and Camden are receiving more attention now than they have in decades. Even under a Republican governor, investments are being made in these cities’ schools, and tax breaks being given to companies relocating there. The results of these dramatic methods won’t be known for decades, but it’s a stark contrast to Trenton’s history of sending these cities money with little or no oversight or overarching methodology to facilitate their revitalization. 

No one call tell the future, but a new pattern is definitely emerging. One of our state’s biggest challenges in the coming decades will be how to mitigate the social and economic costs of our sprawling surubs. It’s clear that they’ve simply become too expensive to maintain. And as people both young and old leave the state for more attractive places, there will be fewer New Jerseyans living in these towns to pay the cost to maintain them.

Comment (1)

  1. deciminyan

    Great article. It frames the issues quite nicely.

    Municipal consolidation is the third rail of New Jersey politics. The Princeton success is unlikely to be duplicated on a large scale because the local fiefdoms won’t let it happen. Not every community is as enlightened as Princeton. Even Senate President Sweeney is backing off from his previous position to promote consolidation of services without necessarily combining municipalities.

    Looking forward, the states that have the infrastructure to compete in the new economies will be the ones that thrive. This is not only roads and bridges, but also fast, inexpensive broadband and cheap clean power. And a well-educated populace is a prerequisite to a thriving 21st century economy. Unfortunately, the power of the education-industrial complex is working more toward profits than toward performance.


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