Suburban Sprawl: Our defining feature and biggest challenge

This article is being cross-posted to the site, 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.


7 thoughts on “Suburban Sprawl: Our defining feature and biggest challenge

  1. Great post as always and very relevant to me personally. I grew up in South Jersey. I used to live there… Past tense.

    I will advise you to merge municipal governments very carefully. While it absolutely makes sense to achieve an economy of scale through consolidation it comes at a political price. In theory it makes sense to have a unified plan with efficient government services across an entire region. But the needs of people on cul-de-sacs and strip malls are usually in conflict with the needs of people in walkable mixed-use transit-served towns. Voters will not be on board with a transition to urbanism if it means less drive-thru convenience or the perception that roads are being let go in order to fund trains or infill development, etc.

    As many suburbs fail they may pull the viable town centers down with them. Consolidation fixes one problem but creates others. It might be better to have separate suburban and urban voting blocks and tax bases even if they are redundant and expensive. Then they can sink or swim on their own merits.

    1. Interesting thoughts on consolidating what are essentially post-war and pre-war towns. It seems like right now, Courage to Connect is seeing most of its success in places where it makes the most overt sense to consolidate, like the Princetons or Roxbury and Mt. Arlington. I agree with you about not consolidating for the sake of creating contention, and I don’t really see that situation happening in reality. I think real life resource sharing will churn along like it has for some of the smallest towns that cannot support themselves, like here, where the tiny town of Oaklyn works with surrounding towns to pool resources. I agree that towns with similar municipal goals would be the best candidates for full consolidation, if that’s the end result.

      1. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area a super heated economy, geographic constraints, hideous highway congestion, and conflicting ideologies result in difficulties with municipal coordination. For decades the cities (San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, etc) have pushed hard for a truly regional and comprehensive public transportation network uniting the entire nine county region. Right from the get go in the 1960’s the suburban governments (particularly the southern suburbs in what is now Silicon Valley) wanted nothing to do with public transit. Full stop. Trains and buses from the cities would bring “the wrong element” to safe, clean, prosperous suburbs. If you couldn’t afford a single family home and at least one car they really didn’t want you anywhere near them. They successfully built car-oriented sprawl at least in part to prevent the “wrong kinds of people” from moving in.

        In recent times the cities have radically gentrified and suburbs found themselves choked on gridlock with a land use pattern that physically prevented transit from becoming a viable option. Private companies began running fleets of so-called Google Buses as a work-around for their employees. These shadow transit services work well enough for tech workers, but do nothing for the rest of the population. However, the Google Bus phenomenon did demonstrate that there was a middle class market demand for transit in suburbia.

        The much contested Plan Bay Area attempts to address land use planning in a top-down regional manner. It is hated by suburban governments and many voters for forcing density on people who prefer detached homes with front lawns and backyards. I have to say much of the resulting development is neither as vibrant as a true urban environment like San Francisco, nor as verdant and spacious as a typical suburb. Instead the worst qualities of each form have been conflated to produce density without urbanism. “Townhomes without a town.” This wasn’t the intention of the plan, but rather the outcome after a great deal of political wrangling and horse trading.

        In the case of New Jersey I think the locations that already have good bones will likely be the easiest to reinvent and thrive. They will gain market value, attract new investment, and garner political clout over time. The places that are the most auto-dependent and far flung will likely decline unless they are colonized by a particularly wealthy and influential population – and there aren’t enough rich people in New Jersey to save every failing cul-de-sac and strip mall.

      2. That’s some really interesting insight into this from the SF bay area, and it’s completely believable that the same pattern would emerge in other areas. I think you’re right about NJ as well, in that there just can’t be an influx of enough money/people to save the already-starting-to-fail egregiously suburban towns. I predict it’ll be a slow motion train wreck for those places, while the ones connected to our border cities and their high paying jobs succeed.

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  4. What’s interesting to me is how similar New Jersey really is to California and Florida. All three states are known for sprawl that cut down orchards, vineyards, and other agricultural land, sprawled out majorly along highways from walkable cities and town centers that grew during the age of the railroad, and the state culture that comes from such a landscape. All three states also leached majorly off of older Northeastern urban areas and lured away their jobs and residents -then see the descendants of said residents flee the bland suburbia they grew up in. These states still appeal to people moving up out of poverty or not so great urban neighborhoods but the color or ethnicity of said urban fleers makes the other residents uncomfortable and they then flee for even further away digs, continuing the cycle. It should come as no surprise that all three states are becoming among the most racially and socioeconomically diverse in the country because aging sprawl and decreasing property values makes it possible for people who have less to move in.

    The biggest difference is the weather. This is the entire reason people moved to Florida and California from the Northeast in the first place, and it’s why both states have continuously viable suburban areas built around highways and New Jersey does not -with the exception of the areas favored by people either from or working in New York or Philadelphia.

    Another huge difference is location. Florida and California are both located directly above Latin America and this and draws such as Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Miami are largely the only reasons both states don’t have lower net migration rates.

    New Jersey has none of these things going for it. Literally the only pluses are historic towns, scenic beauty, revitalizing cities, and the shore. That’s a lot but it’s not anywhere near enough to sustain the ridiculous level of sprawl across the state.

    To me the answer is to let market forces play out how they will and revitalize the walkable towns and cities rather than trying to densify mistakes like Cherry Hill.

Let me know what you think.

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