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NJDOT Commissioner: $1 Million for Transit Villages Not Enough, So We Made It Zero

May 17, 2011

Construction of the Somerville Town Center. Source: BOB KARP/Gannett

Ever since the state Department of Transportation’s proposed Transportation Capital Plan was released this spring without funding for the popular Transit Village program, Commissioner Jim Simpson has taken a curious tack in defending his decision to defund the program. It goes something like this: Contrary to appearances, the NJDOT really likes the Transit Village program, and its aim of producing more transit-oriented development. But the $1 million in funding the program received paled in comparison to the need, so we decided to eliminate the funding altogether. It’s a position that begs the obvious question: In that case, why not increase the funding, rather than eliminate it? Or at the very least, why not keep the program at the same funding level?

The commissioner reiterated this view most recently in an interview with NJ 101.5 discussing the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s recent analysis of the DOT capital plan. He likened distributing the $1 million grant pool to “trying to spread peanut butter around the state…you really didn’t get any big bang for the buck.”

We’ve already used this space to dispel the notion that grants made under the Transit Village program are inconsequential. The short version is: The grant money provides an incentive for municipalities to participate in the program, which requires them to adopt a number of transit-friendly development policies. Without this funding, municipalities have no incentive to participate, and the state loses out on increased transit-oriented development and the economic activity it generates.

Likewise, while it may be possible, as the commissioner claims, that projects within designated transit villages could be funded from other sources, doing so undermines the entire premise of the program, which is that municipalities will be rewarded for engaging in sound land-use planning in line with criteria set forth by the department. Asking designated transit villages to compete for funding against every other town in the state is unfair to towns that have already sought designation, and provides no incentive for new towns to participate in the program.

A few recent examples help illustrate the connection. Last month, officials in Bound Brook, a designated transit village, announced plans to build a 200-unit luxury apartment building near the town’s train station on the site of the former Bolmer Motor Car building. The proposal fits in with larger efforts to redevelop the downtown as a walkable hub of pedestrian activity. Meanwhile, a few stops up the Raritan Valley line in Somerville (also a designated transit village), developers recently broke ground on a major redevelopment project that will revitalize the borough’s downtown with a mix of housing and commercial buildings. In both instances, planning funded by the Transit Village program helped pave the way for the new projects.

The commissioner is certainly correct that $1 million in grant funding split many ways (grants are typically for between $100,000 and $500,000) does not go far toward meeting the state’s huge need for transportation capital funding. But the purpose of the Transit Village program was never to solve the state’s infrastructure needs; it was to catalyze good planning at the local level that took advantage of the state’s extensive public transportation system and encouraged smart growth. By that measure, the program has been a great success so far, and modest funding that it requires is a bargain when considering all of the economic activity it helps generate.

Past Transit Village coverage on Garden State Smart Growth:

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