LBI, NJ Bridge Plans To Worsen Traffic

Ian Sacs's picture

New Jersey's prized gateway communities along Long Beach Island - South Jersey's extra-special vacation spot better known to the planning community for its prescient example as human habitation threatened by natural erosion in Ian McHarg's planning tome "Design with Nature" - are facing an entirely man-made threat in the form of ill-conceived plans to effectively double the roadway "capacity" of the one and only bridge connecting this 18 mile barrier island to the mainland.  If NJDOT is left to its own devices, and local community officials rush them along, a proposed new bridge will have the complete opposite effect than intended.  Rather than alleviating traffic to and from LBI, it will significantly worsen conditions on this already congested island.  To avoid a major error in judgment, local residents should voice their concerns for a different approach now.

What Traffic?  Manahawkin Bay Bridge (SR 72) From A Calmer Vantage

This bridge story tells the same weary tale as a thousand other bridges across the country: years past its useful life, patched and pinned beyond expectations, worsened by rough coastal conditions, in dire need of replacement.  The current estimate is for construction to begin "at least" by 2014, maybe later.  To some that seems a while off, but for those in the funding apprpriation know, that means "imminent".  Plans and funds take years to align.  Environmental impact studies for such projects – in sensitive coastal areas with no alternate crossings - are time-ravenous beasts.  The current plan proposed by NJDOT (it's State Highway Route 72) is to build a new span parallel to the existing bridge, shift traffic to the new span once complete, rehabilitate the old bridge, and finally operate the two spans as an east-west pair, effectively doubling "capacity" of the crossing.  Total projected cost is currently at approximately $250 million.  To many, this may sound like a solid plan.  With respect to solving the traffic problem however, it's far from that.  In my opinion, it is the opposite of what should be done.

The problem is that the bottleneck that causes 2-5 miles of double-lane traffic queued over the bridge and beyond every sunny summer Saturday morning is not the bridge, it's the island.  For all the added lanes, fresh pavement, and new signals installed on LBI over the years, traffic has only worsened.  Old-school traffic engineers have done what they can, but have ignored - or feared stating - the obvious truth: there are just too many cars in too little space each weekend.  Doubling the "capacity" of the bridge will do absolutely nothing to cure the traffic on the island; instead, it will only exacerbate current conditions by encouraging more driving, more cars, and more congestion in the same limited space.  In other words, a new bridge purposed to double the current capacity will be the most expensive reservoir parking facility one could build.  In their cry for solving the island's seasonal traffic woes, what residents should be feverishly pushing their elected officials for is not the quickest solution, but a solution that simultaneously preserves what's left of the precious beach town feel of their communites while aggressively discouraging any more automobile traffic.

The Bottleneck Is On The Island, Not The Bridge

One possible solution is to use the current perceived capacity limitations of the one and only bridge crossing to the island's advantage, by making this the threshold between an auto-centric mainland and a new, family-friendly, pedestrian, bicycle, trolley, and low-speed car community on the island, very similar to earlier periods in the island's history as a vacation community.  The concept I propose is one that makes use of free shuttle buses (call them community trolleys) as the central transportation component for the island.  The free trolley "system" would be comprised of two parts: Express shuttles to central parking locations on the mainland, and circulating trolleys providing continuous access up and down the island.

First are the "express" shuttles that run directly between stops at small towns along the island to designated parking lots in the big-box retail shopping centers all along the mainland corridor of Route 72 between the bridge and the nearest major highway, the Garden State Parkway.  This system allows all but "essential" privately owned cars to avoid driving onto the island, with all others using a "park-and-ride" mentality that is already very familiar in New Jersey.  Shopping centers can easily be convinced that these cars are not only the same that fill their lots throughout the summer weekends (but not during the very peak holiday shopping days for which their lot design capacities were required), but that providing these spaces for weekend-long parking is an excellent way to better use their land while also stimulating a host of new or expanded business services, such as grocery delivery, restaurants and cafes, and "last minute" beach accessories.  Imagine getting a voucher when you park your car for a free coffee with the purchase of a breakfast croissant at the cafe stand situated next to the shuttle bus pick-up.  Moreover, creating a concentrated, direct connection to and from the island allows for another sorely needed transportation feature, longer-distance bus services from areas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey from where most visitors originate, further reducing traffic in the area.

Second are the "circulating" trolleys, both on the island along LBI Boulevard and between the participating shopping centers on the mainland.  These trolleys allow everyone, residents and visitors alike, to hop on and hop off anywhere they want, eliminating the need to ever get in your car once you're on the island, and dramatically reducing non-essential driving both on and off the island.  Imagine taking the family to dinner, then on to the amusement park, and finally stopping for ice cream, all without ever using your car!  Get to and from work daily with no need for driving!  Bar-hop with no fear of arrest!  Visit the historic lighthouse – with or without poles and tackle - and pick up some salt water taffy while chatting with friends and meeting neighbors.  LBI is perfect for a local transit service; can residents imagine it?

The cascading traffic and pedestrian safety effect of such a plan is amazing; fewer cars means less traffic.  Less traffic means fewer speeders, fewer accidents, fewer drunk drivers, and less money dedicated to this kind of enforcement.  Less traffic also means fewer lanes are needed for cars.  LBI Boulevard can easily be narrowed from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction and a median turning lane (also known as a "Road Diet").  The leftover pavement on the sides can be converted into wider, safer walking and bicycle lanes, further improving safety conditions and encouraging families to eschew their cars for local trips.  Narrowed traffic lanes also means reduced pedestrian exposure to moving traffic at intersections thanks to shorter, safer crossing distances form one side of the street to the other.  All this "shrinking" would also likely eliminate the need for the very traffic signals that cause so much ire to locals who fondly remember how things once were.  

Ok, ok, the two big questions:  How do you prevent everyone from just driving anyway, and how do you pay for all this?  The answers to these two questions are interconnected.  First, you discourage non-essential driving onto the island by issuing seasonal permits, similar in concept to beach passes, except these permits are for cars accessing the island, not people.  For residents who can show they pay a tax bill, they may be eligible for one or two free or highly subsidized vehicle permits.  All others choosing to drive onto the island can either buy a seasonal permit or pay per crossing using existing technology such as EZ-Pass.  For those shrieking of tolls and socialist tendencies, remember that these permits support the cost of an entirely free trolley service that keeps unwanted automobile traffic off the island, and dramatically reduces local on-island traffic.  Offering free trolley service to and from the island as an alternative to a substantial permit or crossing fee is a major incentive for daily visitors, friends, and guests (those representing the third, fourth, or fifth vehicles parked all weekend in front of summer homes and contributing significantly to island congestion) to park-and-ride, without creating the "Lexus-lanes" effect that prices out families or individuals in lower-income brackets trying to get to a job.  Of course, the permit and crossing fees are what pay for the trolleys, and handsomely at that.

Finally, the bridge.  Due to the need to maintain current capacity throughout the multi-year construction schedule, building a second span is likely unavoidable.  What is avoidable though, is the unnecessary expense of refurbishing the existing bridge for high volume vehicular traffic lanes.  For this, LBI should take a cue from Chattanooga, Tennessee or the Florida Keys, where older bridges were re-purposed for lighter-load uses.  For example, instead of being used as one half of an east-west pair, the existing bridge span could be reconditioned as a car-free pedestrian and bicycle crossing, or shared with exclusive trolley lanes as an alternative to the new bridge's car lanes.

This is a major leap from the status-quo, and it would require effective use of one of those nearly-intangible concepts: interjurisdictional cooperation.  But I believe a concept like this is not only the right direction for a traffic-laden gateway to an important natural resource such as LBI, it is also an equitable solution for all users.

Full disclosure: I'm a "Benny".  "Bennies" are people who either own seasonal properties on (not me), or seasonally visit (me), LBI, and are regularly scowled at by year-long residents for bringing their hifalutin opinions and big-city money ($100>Benjamins>Bennies) to sully up the island.  Worse than this, I've only been visiting LBI for six years, mas o menos, which means my opinions are worth bupkis to locals.  But hey, blogs are for opinions, and if LBI ever needed a second opinion, the time is nigh.

Ian Sacs, P.E. is a worldwide transportation solutions consultant based in Finland.



Congestion and an alternative for your suggestion

I find your opinions and suggestions very interesting and I am glad to see that you write about the conjestion issue and present that the problem of the congestion can't be solved with added lanes or new roads and especially not if you want to build something sustainable for future use. There are too many in this country that blindfold them selfs and rely on the "old" way of solving congestion, by adding higher capacity to the roads and highways. What surprises me in this case, is that it is about an Island, a very sensitive environment that should be preserved with as much as possible of what is left of its nature which in my opinion will not happen if the traffic volume increase. More traffic leads to more required parking lots and so on, and I just don't get it how these kind of suggestions are allowed to be discussed in 21th century in a time where sustainability is a key word in our development.

I would like to add one thing to your suggestions; you mentioned that "shrinking" the roads or remove lanes for automobile traffic could allow new pedestrian and bicycle lanes which is a great idea. Another suggestion could be to "convert" one of the lanes in each direction and make it to a "transit only" lane, this will definitely make the transit system attractive since the travel time will decrease dramatically! It will be a higher cost to "convert" this land and add pedestrian and bicycle lanes but I think the whole system will be even more attractive and functional.


Three points to ponder

Three points to ponder:


Due to LBI’s definitive boundaries - the bay, the sea, and Island Beach State Park - it can’t sprawl any more. It’s not often this can be said – but as long as density is kept in check by proper local zoning - added capacity here won’t impact traffic as drastically as elsewhere. Though I’ll cede you may have an adverse effect by an increased number of day-trippers.


So we all agree that if you could have taken alternative transportation, then you’ll have to deal with a reasonable amount of the natural resulting traffic. But there is case where getting stuck in traffic is unacceptable – when it could result in loss of life. The island is low lying, and in the event of a large storm surge or tsunami, a swift evacuation can be necessary. As the only non-maritime evacuation route off of LBI, this bridge is the critical link between safety and being washed away. So while one can question adding capacity to the bridge to alleviate traffic on a sunny summer day, we have to think twice about creating additional capacity needed under emergency contra-flow operations.

My understanding of this project was that it was a compromise of the eight lanes needed during contra-flow operations (and useful for MPT), and keeping the operational status quo – hence a pair of wide shoulders on each bridge.
For this reason alone - the old bridge needs to be rehabilitated to withstand the impact of carrying full traffic.


Now we are presented with the public road funding chondrium. No one likes paying for roads in New Jersey, be it taxes, user fees like the gas tax or *gasp* tolls. But people can get over that if the fee is assessed in a fair and equitable way. I.E. If tolls are based on vehicle type and time of day makes – that’s equitable because it directly correlates to the wear and tear of the bridge/roadway and traffic congestion, and in essence is a toll to offset my crossing’s cost and impact to the greater public.

The problem comes in when some crossers (i.e. residents) are tolled in a significantly different way than non-residents as you propose. Different treatment for residents may be all right on a municipal road, where the municipal residents pay the taxes to maintain the street which non-residents don’t.
However this bridge carries a state highway, and is being built with state funds, or more accurately, federal funds are being matched with state resources. So to treat some residents of New Jersey differently than others on a state funded highway is problematic. And due to the magnitude of the bridge’s cost and its carrying a designated state highway, this funding source isn’t going to change.

So long story short – you’ll either have to toll everyone equitably regardless of residence, or not toll at all. (I would think though you could offer a “seasonal pass” discount as long as it’s open to everyone regardless of residency)

But with a few tweaks -

But beyond that – I think your ideas are brilliant (as usual). You’ll have to lose many of the initial cost benefits – by still fully refurbishing the existing bridge - and would have a significant added cost of creating a tolling/bussing agency to coordinate all this (as NJDOT has never dealt with tolls).

But I would recommend modifying your proposal by not regulating traffic on the bridge but instead to allow the free market to reduce non-resident users but utilizing innovative parking zoning and permits in such a way to reserve much of the parking for residents, and setting the rest at market rate. If done in combination with your free bussing/trolley scheme which can be offset by general tolls on the new bridge, and can operate on a BRT Lane on the currently widened bridge cross-section.


Definition of BENNY

Thank you for the article. Great perspective on this bridge and LBI's congestion in the summers, which I've generally come to accept at the shore. Love the trolley concept.

As a fellow "Benny", I just wanted to comment that I've never heard the definition you came up with before. The only definition I've known pretty much matches the urban dictionary one...and I quote:

The term BENNY originated from the letters of the train stations on the Jersey Shore line where annual tourists come down to the shore and mess up everything between Memorial day and Labor day.
(N)ew (Y)ork

Lets build bridges!

I too want to protect the Island, but when I remember long beach Ilsand thriving! now, I go all the way down to Beach haven because that is the only place where there are people, stores , activities for children, restaurants galore and beautiful scenery. I recently have become very upset not just the last two years watching this Island decline in business and attractions that were all a very beautiful part of this Island......Yes, let us first and foremost protect the environment, the Costeau society and the Rutgers students in Tuckerton, study these horrible effects on the environment and marine life....but building clean stuctures is not what has destroyed our waters, it the chemicals from the roads and lawns that have filtered into the waterways, IT needs cleaner roadways and not just patched up ones!!!! LBI needs a boost of energy to help it survive and that means strong clean roadways so that people can be safe and the water too...not leaky bridges dripping into the bay....How about this....use the trolley system and decrease the traffic on the island by building a bridge where you can also park and trolley over to the bridge and not pay, just the cars that go overwill pay! (excpt the people that pay taxes on that island) they will be entitled to a bridge pass....(Believe me you dont want to pay those taxes over there!) Use both systems , I was down in beach haven the other day, the traffic was horrible. and the exhaust was terrible too! Use what they do in Atlantic city , build a parking station for cars, so that people can use the trolley to get around the island....That is a superb Idea! Then, help build this Island to what it use to be... Fantastically Alive! Plus, people need jobs and we need clean safe bridges, build a new one besides, where is all that lottery money going too! Young and middle aged men are starving for jobs to support there families, and New Jersey needs to step up to the plate! We already pay high taxes....let 's build this bridge it would be a shot in the arm for the Island and make it a more beautiful place to live and visit!

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