Leonia’s traffic ban points to broader problems

There has been much discussion regarding Leonia’s recent banning of commuters from using its backstreets during rush hour to reach or return from the George Washington Bridge. “Residents cheered. Commuters cursed.” Violators are subject to a $200 fine. The decision faces a court challenge, and AG Grewal opposes the change citing New Jersey’s statute that does not allow municipalities to “arbitrarily” shut down streets that affect state highways. News articles blame the recent upsurge in use of apps which, when traffic comes to a standstill, redirect vehicles through Leonia toward the bridge. The problem, however, is much broader and involves two critical issues which impact northern NJ as well other areas in our state.

OVERDEVELOPMENT

The problem is not with Leonia which has had almost no growth in its population in recent years but more with Fort Lee which is the next and final transit point to access the GW Bridge into the city. The nation’s busiest crossing, moving about 300,000 vehicles daily, no longer can handle that load. More than 15,000 cars swarm Fort Lee Road on the worst days, flooding backstreets and overwhelming Leonia’s police department.

What was once merely a fort in defense against the British army and then a rural area, rapidly became populated after construction of the bridge. Fort Lee’s roads laid down in the 1940’s are often just one lane in each direction and woefully unable to handle today’s traffic. Overdevelopment in Fort Lee and the Hudson River coast line immediately south in Edgewater and Cliffside Park, and north in Englewood Cliffs, only compounds the traffic problem and leads to snail-paced traffic heading toward the bridge. See the photo to the left of high-rise buildings in Fort Lee, and there are similar nearby condos and apartments along the river’s edge. They provide stunning views, with many offering fabulous amenities for the wealthy, and proximity to Manhattan, but also severe congestion. The Christie administration’s disastrous Bridgegate closing of the Fort Lee entrance ramps to the bridge only highlighted a problem which already existed.

With the GW Bridge being the area’s mode to cross into NYC and few options to ease congestion, local municipalities should restrict further development. Some Fort Lee residents welcome new developments which add to its town coffers, and the city has long been promising expensive widening of roads, but the problem just gets more severe. The inconvenience and unpleasant long delays may reduce interest in people moving here, but allowing more development will only exacerbate the problem. There are some patchwork solutions mentioned below, but overdevelopment remains a problem here and in other New Jersey areas.

TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT

NJ’s transportation infrastructure woes have been well documented. Complicit in the problem over the past numerous years are NY/NJ Port Authority, the governors controlling it, NJ’s own lack of investment, failure of regional planning, and off-and-on support from the federal government, all resulting in a lack of sufficient maintenance and countless nightmares for travelers. The ASCE’s rating for New Jersey on bridges is a D+ and on transit D-. More serious now than the bridge’s problem is the lack of support from the Trump administration for the trans-Hudson Gateway tumnel.

Finally in 2016 the NY/NJ Port Authority started the “Restore the George” program. It is a multi-year $2 billion investment to repair and rebuild key components of the bridge and its approach roads in order to keep it viable for the future. However, it is not long-term solution and in the interim makes traffic worse by off-and-on lane closures to permit the repairs.

There are only patchwork solutions. TransOptions assists commuters in setting up carpools and vanpools and its efforts should be encouraged. Another approach can be seen in what NYC is doing. All of the city’s bridges and tunnels are officially toll booth-free. Instead of charging drivers who are stopped at toll plazas, the authority uses sensors and cameras to charge EZ pass vehicle owners and to send bills to registered owners of other vehicles.

There are also even broader factors involved. A better economy in New Jersey which can offer good and more jobs within our state would reduce the need to cross the Hudson. A reduction of nation-wide population growth can also ameliorate the problem. NY Gov. Cuomo’s proposed $11.52 congestion fee on cars traveling in NYC from 60th Street south to the Battery, would be a nasty blow for New Jerseyans who already pay tolls of $12.00 or more just to cross the Hudson, but it would nonetheless reduce traffic crossing the river. In the end with uncertain federal funding and frequent disagreements between NY and NJ, it will be New Jersey’s problem to solve, and it is much broader than just the concern over the GW Bridge and Leonia.

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