With clean energy and a conscious citizenry and administration, New Jersey appears to be a shining example of climate action. But will it always be? Expanding the turnpike will completely undo all the work that has been done to transform New Jersey into a sustainable, climate change-conscious state. Turnpike expansion will cause dangerous road conditions and negative health and safety impacts for Jersey City families. However, the greatest travesty that will occur is the increase of greenhouse gas emissions which will inevitably accompany this expansion as more and more people seek to drive through the Holland Tunnel on their way to New York City.
At the moment, 27% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States originate from transportation, with a whopping 57% of that total coming from light-duty vehicles, such as cars. Although we have a lower emissions rate per capita than other states, especially considering recent projects in the clean energy sector across the state, half of those emissions are a direct result of the transportation sector. An expansion of one of the busiest roads of the country, which many people choose to avoid due to existing congestion, would only increase the car-based emissions in the state.
Proponents of this plan argue that the environmental impact of the turnpike expansion will be minimal; this is based on incorrect assumptions. First, they assume that the expansion will lead to decreased congestion and less traffic jams, with the argument that idling cars in traffic are larger emitters of greenhouse gases. While idle cars do lead to more emissions, it is false to assume that more highway lanes will prevent these idling cars. It will lead to more of them. Studies have shown that adding more highway lanes actually leads to more congestion through induced demand, as folks who had previously used public transit are now incentivized to drive, adding more cars to the road. From this increased congestion and car usage, it can be expected that greenhouse gas emissions will also skyrocket.
The second incorrect assumption is the prediction that in 15 years, the completed project will be home to mostly electric vehicles (EVs) which emit far fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Although EV registrations in the state have risen, it’s still nowhere near enough. EV registrations in 2022 totaled 47,000, which is high in comparison to other states, but paltry when compared to New Jersey’s population. Considering that the average price of an EV is $66,000, many lower and middle income families are unable to make this switch, even if the desire is there. Although subsidies from the Biden administration may help certain families make this switch, many will still find this cost prohibitive. Based on the cost and existing registrations, it is a stretch to assume that most new cars using this expanded highway will be light emissions vehicles.
So, what is the best course of action to accommodate both commuters and locals? Simply put, it is to grow in scale what is already a common way of reaching the Big Apple: rail. The Murphy administration has already approved $32 million for rail expansion northwestward into Sussex County yet railroads are largely non-existent along the I-78 corridor. Rather than using the allotted $10.6 billion for turnpike expansion, a more cost-effective and emissions-reducing measure per capita would be to expand New Jersey Transit service into these areas where residents often have no choice but driving to reach the metropolitan area. Additionally, lower-income residents outside of Newark and Jersey City are often faced with either driving or paying higher ticket costs as they are unable to access the PATH easily. To allow for more New Jerseyans to benefit from the cost-effective PATH system, the Murphy administration and local officials should look to add additional PATH stations and tracks going both northward and southward from Newark which would open access of public transit to a much larger number of residents.
Governor Murphy now has a choice. He can continue with a turnpike expansion plan based on incorrect assumptions which will lead to a surge of greenhouse gas emissions. Or he can choose a sustainable railway plan which would open access to affordable, low-emissions transit for hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans. His legacy in the fight against climate change could be decided by the decision he makes.