Where are the primary challengers in the state Assembly election?

This article is being cross-posted to the site BlueJersey.com, the state’s “progressive source of news, political analysis and activism in New Jersey”.

Everyone who’s had an eye on the state’s economic performance the past few years knows that New Jersey hasn’t been doing well recently. As the United States climbs out of the recession, the Garden State is still stuck in neutral. The state’s economy still has only about 60% of the jobs today than it did before the recession, the unemployment rate is still a full percentage point higher than the national average, and the foreclosure crisis is still in full effect in the state.

With such a bleak outlook for the state, many people agree that something has to be done to get the state’s economy back on track. Legislators on the left and right have tried coming up with ways to address budget issues and the state’s anemic job growth. But after several years of plan making and position taking, nothing’s actually worked for state residents. All of the state’s numbers are sliding in the wrong direction.

Which brings me to this year’s statewide election. Every seat in the Assembly, the state’s lower legislative chamber, is up for grabs. If there was ever a time to put pressure on state lawmakers to do what’s really needed to get the state back on track, now would be the time. Clearly what politicians on both sides of the aisle have been trying hasn’t been working, and some fresh, creative solutions are needed. We should be having a vigorous debate in each legislative district about how we got into this station and what’s needed to get out of it. Lawmakers should feel like their jobs are on the line, that this election is a referendum on their ability to govern a state at a crossroads.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re going to have that conversation or anything close to it. Of all the legislators up for reelection, pitifully few of them will even have to fight to make it to the general election in November. This is due to the fact that of all the seats up for grabs, almost none of them have competitive primaries, meaning the lawmakers you see in the Assembly this year are almost guaranteed to be the ones you see next year.

What does it mean in for a primary election for the Assembly to be competitive? Consider that there are 40 legislative districts in New Jersey, and that each district sends two people to the Assembly. In the primary election in June, the top two vote getters for each party in each district get to go to the general election in November. This means that for a primary to be competitive, there needs to be more than two candidates in a party on the primary ballot.

With this in mind, I took a look at the list of primary candidates for each legislative district in the state (available here). Scanning the list and starting with the first district, I had to reach district number nine before I hit a competitive primary, a 4-way race on the Republican side. It wasn’t again until the 15th District that another competitive primary showed up, this time a 3-way race on the Democratic side. Other highlights include a 6-way Democratic primary in the 20th District in Union County and a 7-way Democratic primary in the 31st District in Hudson County.

Overall, out of a possible 80 primary elections (for both Democrats and Republicans in each of the 40 legislative districts), there were only five that were competitive. That means that just over 6% of total primary races in the state were even worth showing up to the ballot for.

To put it simply, that’s pathetic. The lack of competitive primary races gives a free pass to legislators who have done little to nothing to fix what’s wrong with New Jersey. And in a state that used to be a shining example of success in the Northeast but whose peers are all now passing it by, it’s just unacceptable.

As John Oliver rightfully said, state legislatures are where laws that directly affect you are made. The policy decisions that dictate whether your roads are paved, your trains are on time, or your pensions are funded are all made in Trenton. So it’s disheartening that there is so little competition for those jobs, and that we keep sending the same people back year after year and expecting different results. How do we really expect to move New Jersey forward?

Built Environment, Camden, Development

Why it matters that Camden won an award for its parking lots

All throughout the month of March, the website Streetsblog USA held a competition to find the worst misuse of space in America’s cities. There were contenders from across the country from cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Syracuse, Detroit, and Fort Worth. As their website says, the competition’s goal is find “sorriest wastes of urban space [we] can find” in the form of the massive parking lots that scar the urban fabric of cities across the country. Given my neighboring city of Camden’s high number of parking lots on its supposedly-valuable waterfront, I decided to enter it into the competition to give these huge wastes of space some visibility beyond South Jersey.

The reaction was more than I could have hoped for. Comment after comment lamented the wasted opportunity presented by these parking lots. They talked about things like how much they separate the waterfront from the city. How people working in the office buildings there are utterly disconnected form the city. One commenter enumerated the wealth of public transit options that surround such a huge collection of parking lots:

“Camden has the potential to be very walkable. There’s Walter Rand Transportation Center, with dozens of NJTransit bus routes and the RiverLine light rail to Trenton, which connects with the heavy rail Atlantic City Line in Pennsauken and the Northeast Corridor in Trenton, with NJT rail to NYC and multiple Amtrak connections. There’s PATCO subway service into Center City, which is one of the nation’s only 24-hour rapid transit lines. There’s also the seasonal ferry to Penn’s Landing, and not to mention being walking / biking distance over the Ben Franklin right into the heart of Philadelphia.”

Overall, the theme was clear. These parking lots could be doing so much more than sitting there storing cars. The opportunity of transit-oriented developments in the heart of the metropolitan region is as immense as the waste of space created by the lots. Worse still, land that the Cooper’s Ferry development organization has slated for productive development for ten years has sit idle. These lots do nothing but tear the urban fabric of the waterfront the shreds.

To their credit, the neighborhoods these lots are located in, Cooper-Grant and Central Waterfront, have been coming up with plans to become a viable neighborhood. But walking through these neighborhoods, it’s clear just how much these parking lots hurt that effort. You can’t build a vibrant place when there are football fields worth of asphalts between you and where you want to go. You can’t feel cozy and safe in a neighborhood where one entire block is taken up by a corporate office’s big blank walls, as is the case of Market Street and the L3 buildings.

In the end, the choice was obvious. Camden’s horrible parking lots won the Golden Crater.

It’s my hope that the local urbanist and development community, along with the city and Cooper’s Ferry, recognize that there’s a city waiting to be set free from the bad decisions of the past. Downtown Camden is closer and has better transit connections to the jobs of Center City Philadelphia than most of Greater Philadelphia, including neighborhoods even within Philadelphia itself. These lots could be actually be transforming Camden into a vibrant city; instead, we’re left to imagine that tax breaks to rich companies will do the same, which they certainly will not.

Built Environment

Suburban Sprawl: Our defining feature and biggest challenge

This article is being cross-posted to the site BlueJersey.com, the state’s “progressive source of news, political analysis and activism in New Jersey”.

Everyone who’s ever driven through New Jersey has seen it. Town after town, subdivision after subdivision of vinyl-sided, single-family housing. It is one of the hallmark features of the Garden State along with our shore towns and Bruce Springsteen. Having grown up in the 20th century with the popularity of the automobile, it provided shelter for a booming post-World War II population and the millions of children born to it. But the American dream our suburbs helped to fulfill have become something of a nightmare. And as the problems that plague these towns get worse, they threaten to undermine the viability of the entire state.

Everyone knows that New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the nation, with the average property tax bill in the state coming in at $8,161. And for that ever-increasing figure, municipalities across the state are receiving fewer and fewer services as the infrastructure that serves them, such as roads, rails, water, and sewer systems age. The high cost of maintaining these basic services is in part due to the large number of individual municipalities there are in New Jersey (565 at last count). Each town manages its own police and fire departments, school districts, government, local roads, and water/sewer systems. With each town working on its own to maintain its infrastructure, there’s no hope of taking advantage of economies of scale when it comes to paying for things towns need to survive. This means towns have to rely on the state for money they can’t get through property taxes, and municipal aid from Trenton has been falling for the past several years.

As a reaction to the sheer number of towns in the state that need their own costly administration, the nonprofit organization Courage to Connect formed to promote the benefits of municipal resource sharing and outright consolidation. The first township/borough consolidation to occur since it formed, Princeton Township and Princeton Borough became one municipality in 2013. At a State of the Town address earlier this year, Mayor Liz Lempert listed out the ways this consolidation has saved the town money. The new town has fewer employees, the tax rate is lower than that of the separate towns, improved municipal services, and what Lempert calls a more responsive government. Notably, Senate President Steve Sweeney has been a proponent of municipal consolidation as a way to lower property taxes.

Another area where our suburban sprawl hurts us is the vast transportation network built to move people around it. To say that New Jersey is known for its highways almost as much as its sprawl would be an understatement. We are after all the “What exit?” state. But while New Jerseyans have traditionally loved getting in their car for most trips they take, even short ones within their own towns, they have never loved paying for it. The Transportation Trust Fund, set up in 1984 by Governor Tom Kean to pay for our roads, bridges, and trains, has failed to keep pace with the cost of keeping those assets modern and safe. Governor Christie has been notably silent on the issue for fear of the need to raise taxes at a time when he is calculating his every move should he wish to jump into the 2016 presidential race. In the meantime, less and less of the Transportation Trust Fund goes toward actual asset maintenance every day. Within the next few months, the fund could be entirely dedicated to paying off past debts. This means more bridges will become unsafe, commuting times will rise, and public transportation will face service cuts, fare increases, or, more likely, both.

Complicating the state’s transportation problems is Christie’s canceling of the ARC tunnel project by shortly after he entered office. The potential pros and cons of this project aside, it remains the case that major pieces of transportation infrastructure linking New Jersey with New York are in dire need of fixing or replacement. The trans-Hudson tunnels, badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, have been given only 20 more years of useful life before they need to be shut down by Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman. And the 100-year old Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River frequently malfunctions, causing delays on the busiest train line in the country. Without serious attention, these problems will only get worse in the future, especially as both Amtrak and NJ Transit’s ridership numbers continue to increase year after year.

All of this not only results in a more costly commute for the state’s workers, but higher operating costs for the state’s businesses as their products encounter delays traversing the state. The transportation fund is in such dire straits that transportation advocates have joined together with community and business leaders to form Forward NJ, a unified force calling for a permanent fix to our transportation woes. And with good reason; a state with nearly 9 million people, 90% of whom drive to their daily jobs, cannot have a below-average transportation network without a seriously negative economic outcome.

So what’s the future for towns in the sprawl? It doesn’t look good. The increasing number of baby boomers hitting retirement age are finding it hard to pay their growing property taxes, leaving them with no choice but to leave for less expensive states. And millennials, that coveted demographic between roughly 18 and 34, by and large prefer the state’s older towns with walkable downtowns connected to either Philadelphia or New York by public transportation. Indeed, Dean of the Rutgers Bloustein School of Public Policy James Hughes recently appeared on NJTV News reporting on this trend, calling for the reinvention of the state’s suburbs in order to remain economically competitive and socially viable in the years to come.

The facts on the ground support this notion. The places seeing investment right now tend to be the state’s older towns, both pre-war streetcar suburbs and those developed after the mainstream adoption of the personal car. In North Jersey, towns like Hoboken, Jersey City, and Newark have seen investment over the past decade, as have towns along NJ Transit’s network of trains delivering commuters into Manhattan. And in South Jersey, older towns like along the PATCO train line into Center City Philadelphia like Collingswood and Haddon Township are seeing an array of infill projects including new shops and restaurants. Even Cherry Hill, the region’s showcase post-war suburb, is seeing an uptick in projects that will densify the township. Even the state’s long-distressed cities, long abandoned by private investment in favor of far out suburban development, are seeing new money.

And cities like Trenton, Newark, and Camden are receiving more attention now than they have in decades. Even under a Republican governor, investments are being made in these cities’ schools, and tax breaks being given to companies relocating there. The results of these dramatic methods won’t be known for decades, but it’s a stark contrast to Trenton’s history of sending these cities money with little or no oversight or overarching methodology to facilitate their revitalization.

No one call tell the future, but a new pattern is definitely emerging. One of our state’s biggest challenges in the coming decades will be how to mitigate the social and economic costs of our sprawling suburbs. It’s clear that they’ve simply become too expensive to maintain. And as people both young and old leave the state for more attractive places, there will be fewer New Jerseyans living in these towns to pay the cost to maintain them.