Man, There’s an Opera Out There on the Turnpike

Remember the recent blog post about a proposal by New Jersey government officials to build some new high-ticket private lanes on the Turnpike?

A reader named Leonard Hargiss let us know that he’d written a letter to N.J. governor Jon Corzine and the state’s transportation commissioner back in January with a very similar idea — and some other ideas too. “I’m beginning to think they read it,” Hargiss says.

Hargiss, 50, works as a chemist for a pharmaceutical research firm. He moved to N.J. as a young adult and “soon learned the central facts of New Jersey politics, namely that New Jersey voters are cynical, and New Jersey politicians give voters good reason to be cynical.” That said, “Corzine has earned my admiration (and sympathy) for trying to force the legislature to think long term, another irony since he certainly doesn’t need the job.”

Hargiss’s letter is pretty entertaining, I think you will agree — especially the notion of a Milton Friedman first-class rest stop:

Dear Governor Corzine:

The citizens of New Jersey must decide how to manage a financial crisis that has resulted from both decades of wishful thinking and their leaders’ lack of political courage. A major source of anxiety is the future of the New Jersey Turnpike. Following are a few ideas for improving the finances of the Turnpike Authority, which may have escaped the notice of the planners.

1. Thorstein Veblen would instantly recognize New Jerseyans’ need to be conspicuous consumers. How else to explain the holiday mobs at Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom? The Turnpike already comprises both car and truck lanes north- and south-bound between exits 8A and 18. Why not convert the car lanes to first class? The surcharge will provide the same function as toll roads in Texas and Colorado (and alas! the late Concorde) that provide faster travel options for those who … er, think it’s worth it. And we can do it with minimal adverse travel impact by adding an EZ-Pass Express receiver at the entrances to the first class lanes. If traffic gets bad in steerage, then presto! More people will pay the surcharge. And if that is successful, maybe we can attract Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse to the first class service areas, I mean spas. We can name the first one after Milton Friedman (BA, Rutgers U., 1932).

2. Private toll roads elsewhere have already negotiated penalties, payable to the toll authority, when public roads steal their business (USA Today, November 6th, 2007). But the state can play that game! Why not install speed humps or lower the speed limit to 25 on US Routes 1 and 130? During low traffic periods, drivers will flock to the Turnpike. And when traffic is heavy, the speed scarcely exceeds 25 [m.p.h.]anywhere, equalizing the travel times.

3. While New Jerseyans are notoriously cynical about their political leaders, there is one service which they completely entrust to the state. Millions of lottery tickets are sold daily, even though the odds heavily favor the house. But thanks to the EZ-Pass system, the N.J.T.P.A. already has access to our bank accounts. Then why not add a little sizzle to the drive? Selected exit lanes can be marked with a lottery symbol, and drivers can take a chance with every commute. My wife even thought of a great name, “Tollo.” And who knows? Gamblers traveling to or from Atlantic City would surely go out of their way to take the Turnpike. During low traffic periods, people might play for fun, and telecommuters could even play from their desktops!

4. The Turnpike has already attained cult status to the public as a 50’s icon and to engineers as a “Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.” And this is just 50 years after a Turnpike contractor dug up a cemetery in Newark and scattered the bodies. Now that wind and acid rain have metaphorically taken a toll on the original signage, just what image are we projecting to Philadelphians at Interchange 4 with the sign, “N W JE SEY TU ~PI?” We can sell lots of these original items on eBay, and help to preserve our heritage with the bargain. (For openers, I’ll offer them $100 on “Buy it Now” for the “Kiss and Ride” sign at the Vince Lombardi service area).

5. Does anyone really think I-95 will ever be finished between Lawrenceville and Edison? How much toll revenue are we losing because northbound drivers instinctively stay on Route 95 through Philadelphia? Most of the Turnpike was already designed for 75 m.p.h. speeds, so surely it can be easily upgraded to interstate standards. And let Pennsylvania pay for the “95W” signs on the old I-95 spur. It’s the least they can do for the years of greeting westbound drivers on I-78 with a sign in Easton stating, “Welcome to Pennsylvania. America starts here!”

Sincerely,

Leonard Hargiss


josh42042

this is seriously retarded. My guess is that the turnpike was built with public tax money, and you're suggesting that only those with extra money should be able to use them? I hope that you're being sarcastic, but if not then I bet you're among those who have the extra money.

Smitty

Russ, I think you're missing my point!

I never said anything bad about Jersey drivers (or anything good about New England drivers for that matter). I'm stating that for most people who have never driven in Jersey before, there are a lot of anomalies in the state that are very difficult to figure out at first. I actually wasn't even thinking of traffic circles, but they are certainly on the list. The left-turn thing is what I hear the most complaints about from business clients that fly in to Newark from Chicago.

LVTfan

Just don't sell the turnpike -- to anyone, ever -- at any price.

That right of way belongs to the people of NJ, and they ought not to let anyone else pocket the economic rent on it, which is precisely what would happen if it were sold or even leased.

I don't care who the bidder is: local philanthropist, American corporation, hedge fund, US pension fund, a university, a foreign corporation or a sovereign fund. They get to control the economic rent on that land and that infrastructure -- which rightly belongs to all the people of NJ. Let's not forget it. (Think about the airwaves, which are said to belong to the American people. Show me some evidence that they do, please!)

Mike (@#1) is right -- the user fees imposed by the tolls on the NJTP relieve the NJ taxpayer of providing services to through traffic.

A recent (early July) Congressional Budget Office study on financing infrastructure points out how much wear and tear heavy trucks inflict on roadways. Tolls are the way to require the users to pay their way. (What a novel concept! No free lunch -- or at least an only partially subsidized lunch.)

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clare

How can any New Englander dare criticize the drivers of any other state when they have Boston within their boundaries? When I lived in Boston, a neighbor had a bumper sticker "I break for red lights". I thought it was hilarious but it turned out that she wasn't joking.

We can still hope for I95. I287 from Boonton to the NYS border was finally finished after 30 years or so.

Adam

Why not sell the naming rights to the rest stops? And astoundingly funny about the Kiss and Ride re: the Vince - getting it in a family newspaper. Or maybe a "family" newspaper.

Nina

Great ideas! Wish we could have some creativity down here in Brazil, where traffic is getting worse by the second and no one can come up (or execute, for that matter) with good solutions.

Thanks for a great text!

Sam

And lanes on I-95 between Broward County and Miami has been converted to variable restricted access toll lanes. So far its not going too well: http://www.miamiherald.com/416/story/601761.html

There is talk about extending this experiment north so watch out NJ.

Randal

Sorry Smitty, but you're not a New Englander. We've got enough lousy drivers without taking the blame for New York too.

DC

Relatedly, Virginia is planning on converting HOV lanes (which are apparently getting too clogged with hybrids these days) to express toll lanes.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/22/AR2008032202088.html

Russ

Smitty,

You clearly have no idea what you are talking about. I have lived in NJ all my life, and have never heard of New Englanders over running the Jersey Shore.

You are obviously one of those bad drivers from New Engand who can't navigate a circle. At least we are good drivers!

Smitty

This is hands down one of the best blog entries I have ever read.

As a former New Yorker living in Philly, I hate all things New Jersey (except, of course, the Jersey Shore which we New Englanders claim as our own between the months of May and September). The level of guided cynicism displayed in this post perfectly matches the perception many of my fellows have of 'that dirty state south of the city'.

Jersey is chalk full of great ideas that would be perfect in a perfect world. Take the whole no left turn from the left lane thing. In Jersey, if you want to go left, you get in the right lane and make a 270 degree turn AFTER your turn. It's actually brilliant. No extra lanes dedicated to left turns means less road (or at least more road dedicated to the primary direction of travel) and less traffic.

But of course, that's not how most people see it. Ask anyone from out of state that has gotten into their rental car, pulled out their mapquest directions, and immediately missed that tricky left turn because they were in the left (wrong) lane. Oh, and then couldn't turn around for six miles because of the divided road.

Anyway, I love some of these ideas - especially the 'Tollo' one. Nothing like combining two of America's favorite controversial activities, gambling and driving in Jersey, with the chance to actually provide economic good to our failing roadways. Assuming that's where the money would go...

I would especially love to hear about the first 'Tollo induced lawsuit' filed by the survivors of the first multi-car pilup caused by a celebrating jackpot winning driver.

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Mike B

The real trick NJ plays on the Turnpike and other toll roads is that we get out of state travelers to pay our gas taxes for us. There is even other evidence of this local preference aside from the various toll road monopolies. For example there exist many secret exits on the Garden State Parkway which allow local drivers to exit before the toll barriers. The lack of direct connections between I-95 and I-295 helps to get uninformed out of state drivers to pay the toll on the turnpike while locals can use the free roads.

This strategy can be furthered by simply raising the toll on trucks and other commercial vehicles. Some would argue that trucks would begin to use local roads, creating massive congestion. A while back Governor Christie Whitman even attempted to restrict through trucks to the "national road network" to lessen congestion on local roads. While this may have been struck down in courts, the effect can be legally replicated by simply building a series of very low clearance bridges over popular diversion routes like Rt 1 and Rt 130.

In fact, one already exists on northbound I-295 south of the I-76 tangle in South Jersey. The 13' 11" bridge used to block both directions until a truck carrying a large steel construction bucket demolished the low southbound span.

With no alternative and with gas at $4 a gallon, out of state truckers would have no alternative except to bend over and pay our gas tax for us :-)

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Mike

I don't know anything about toll roads, but bravo on the Springsteen reference.

Katie

As a New Englander, let me say that I hate driving in New Jersey. It's awful.

And I can navigate a circle, but I do agree that most NE drivers can't seem to figure out roundabouts.

Chris W

Toll Roads are such a scam and you want to perpetuate them? The public is better offer getting Bonds that eventually get paid off than paying a private company in perpetuity to do the government's job.

Chris