Transit

The reason that DRPA and Wall Street are happy to keep you stuck in traffic on the Ben Franklin Bridge

Your misery is more profitable to the Delaware River Port Authority.

Your misery is more profitable to the Delaware River Port Authority.

Over the past few months, Delaware River Port Authority Vice Chairman (and Camden County Freeholder) Jeffrey Nash has made it known that he wants to bring back the discount that frequent drivers who use the agency’s bridges used to enjoy before it was discontinued several years ago due to poor financial management at the authority. In Nash’s opinion, the drivers who use those bridges are their “best customers” who “deserve this,” and are “hardworking men and women who cross the bridge every day.”

The only possible conclusion you can come to after reading Nash’s comments is that the tens of thousands of people who take the DRPA’s PATCO High Speed Line from South Jersey into Center City Philadelphia every day are considered not-so-hard-working second-class citizens, certainly not the stuff of “best customer” status, in the eyes of the port authority. But reading recent comments by DRPA CEO John Hanson, the picture becomes even clearer: it’s not just the DRPA that considers PATCO commuters as inferior customers, but United States financial system as well.

As the reboot of the discount for drivers nears, both the Philadelphia Inquirer and Courier Post have published articles detailing the effort of Larry Davis, the man behind the @PATCOWatchers Twitter feed widely applauded as encouraging DRPA and PATCO to become more responsive to consumers’ customer service issues, to get PATCO customers a frequent-use discount too. His Change.org petition (available here) currently has over 130 signatures. The message is simple:

“Include a discount for ALL commuters, not only a select group. PATCO Riders should also receive the same discount for frequent use that drivers will be getting. DRPA should treat all of their commuting customers equally.”

But quoted in the Courier Post article, DRPA CEO John Hanson explains why he feels his hands are tied:

“John Hanson, DRPA CEO, said it is not as easy to give PATCO riders a reduction for several reasons, the most significant involving the 50 percent DRPA subsidy that typically finances half of the annual PATCO operating cost.

He said bond rating agencies look at the viability of the PATCO subsidy.

‘We have been advised by our financial consultants that the subsidy should not exceed 50 percent, so as to not adversely impact our bond rating,’ he told the Courier-Post on Thursday.

Higher bond ratings usually mean lower interest rates when the DRPA borrows money for major capital improvements for its four river bridges and for PATCO.”

That might sound like simple financial jargon, and it is undoubtably good that DRPA gets to borrow money more cheaply to improve PATCO, but think about what he’s really saying: DRPA would really rather you not take PATCO, despite its superior convenience of getting into Philadelphia and price compared to parking a car either on the street or in a garage anywhere in Center City and the fact that taking the train for your daily commute generally improves your happiness and financial wellbeing.

The fact that these are the same ratings agencies whose financial wisdom helped crash the American economy 10 years ago notwithstanding, the fear of Wall Street on the part of the DRPA, in essence, forces them to operate like a business, when in reality their goal is not profit, but facilitating the public good. This is the problem that public transportation faces in the United States, and PATCO riders are the ones left to suffer its chilling affect on regional vitality. There’s a grand irony in the American financial system forcing DRPA to operate like a business when all of the roads that lead to and from its bridges are subsidized by every single citizen even if they don’t own a car.

In a world that makes a bit more sense, DRPA would be able to happily encourage people to ride PATCO instead of driving, saving its customers the frustration of city traffic and exorbitant parking fees. If this means DRPA has to be subsidized from outside, then so be it. Doing so would be a net gain for the vitality of our region. Philadelphia itself has been doing a much better job over the past decade in putting its land to better use; parking lot after parking lot is being removed in favor of new apartments, condominiums, and hotels. That city, which has for so long been handed over to the ruinous affects of the automobile, has finally realized that it’s better to build things that bring life and the economic activity it brings to its downtown core than trying (and failing) to entice suburbanites into the city with the illusion of plentiful cheap parking. And at this point in its history, Philadelphia has a bright future ahead of it, with the young and old alike moving in. If only DRPA could be a partner in Philadelphia’s and the region’s prosperity instead of a detriment to it, we would all be better off.

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Built Environment, Demographics

Divided highways and New Jersey’s geography of cultureless nowheres

In a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Kevin Riordan writes about Daniel Nester, an author who recently wrote a memoir about growing up in Maple Shade, Burlington County. As Nester tells it, his book Shader is “mostly about growing up in a working-class Catholic family in 1970s and ’80s South Jersey – a landscape of malls, Wawas, and cemeteries” that’s immediately identifiable to anyone who grew up in the area.

But just because malls, Wawas, and cemeteries are universally recognizable parts of the South Jersey landscape, that doesn’t mean you could pick Maple Shade out of a lineup. If you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Philadelphia, it’s likely you’ve passed through Maple Shade even if you didn’t realize it. For much of the later half of the 20th century, Maple Shade’s story, like those of Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, or Marlton, was centered around roads like Routes 38, 70, or 73, those huge, fast divided highway that are today icons of suburban sprawl.

Route 38 through Maple Shade.

Route 73 through Maple Shade.

Routes 38 and 73 through Maple Shade are prime examples of soulless, placeless development representing a true geography of a cultureless nowhere.

Built during the time of suburbia’s relentless outward expansion, these roads offered a quick way to bypass the towns they run near. But over time, in an era of obsession with quick and easy accessibility by car, these highways became shopping centers in their own right. As towns like Maple Shade sought to cash in on the highways within their borders, they either let their downtowns decay or branded them as “historic” and relegated them to the nostalgic past (a problem that handicaps their viability to this day) . The car and the modern suburbs were king, and no one had a need for small, cramped storefronts anymore.

Or so they thought. What seemed like the new way of American life seems more and more like somewhat of a phase. We still live with these highways, though far from being the beacon of some American dream, they’re clogged with insufferable traffic during commuting hours and alternately lined with placeless big box stores and their own version of roadside decay. They’re nuisances at best — unwalkable, unpleasant to live near, and dangerous for cars, pedestrians, and people on bikes alike — and disastrous at worst — expensive to maintain, clogged with time– and health-robbing traffic, and physically decaying as their economic promise fades but still holding the attention of town halls as nearby downtowns await their revival.

Meanwhile, the focus of a lot of young people has moved back to the historic downtowns long forgotten. Towns like Collingswood, Haddonfield, Merchantville, or Bordentown that didn’t entirely let their downtowns implode are seeing a lot of interest from people who want to live in walkable communities. The towns that did are scrambling to create the arts districts, foster the coffee shops, or improve the public transit links to Philadelphia that people are once again looking for. In short, these towns are trying to figure out how to get back what they lost to highways and cars over the past sixty years: the community that comes from a town where neighbors meet each other on Main Street, the ease and convenience of life along a train line into the jobs of the city, and the economic advantage that comes from having a thriving, living downtown.

Stores in downtown Maple Shade. This could be the key to the town's success, if they embrace it.

Stores in downtown Maple Shade. This could be the key to the town’s success, if they embrace it.

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Camden, Development

Why New Jersey taxpayers’ $118 million giveaway to Subaru won’t revitalize Camden (and how they’re creating a problem that will take decades to fix)

It’s often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but you rarely get to see it play out so perfectly in front of your eyes as it does here in New Jersey. In the summer of 2013, state legislators were busy revamping the state’s system of tax breaks that works to keep businesses in the state when they start to make noise about moving to take advantage of tax incentives from other states. In the race to the bottom in which American taxpayers bankroll corporate operations with little to no net benefit, New Jersey is clearly a frontrunner.

The state has given hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to projects ranging from an “entertainment complex” in the Meadowlands to multiple corporations moving their headquarters just a few miles down the road. But after years of the majority of tax breaks going to North Jersey interests, State Senate president Steven Sweeney (who represents parts of Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem Counties) pushed back to get the reworking of the tax break system, the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, to focus more on South Jersey. As an NJ.com article from the time reports:

“A bill to overhaul how the state lures businesses has been loaded with last-minute sweeteners for South Jersey and pushed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney. The New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act, a mammoth bill supported by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, now sets aside deals for the state’s eight southern counties, especially Camden.”

Ever since then, Camden has received the bulk of the state’s tax breaks. Far from promising to revitalize the city, they’ve gone to a few politically connected entities. But there was one project that was supposed to be a game changer for the city. Subaru of America, currently located on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, was granted a $118 million tax incentive to move a few miles west to the Gateway district of Camden, where Campbell’s Soup has a vision to create South Jersey’s version of Philadelphia’s successful Navy Yard. That Subaru would take the incentives and move to Gateway was seen as potential progress toward the goal of actually realizing the revitalization of that part of the city.

Sadly, it appears as though we were all taken for fools. As news of the plans for their headquarters came out last week, it came to light that this would be no game-changing, world-class headquarters. The plans call for a building shorter than the current headquarters in Cherry Hill. Brandywine Realty Trust, which has developed some wonderful buildings in Philadelphia, wants to build a squat suburban headquarters located in a sea of over 1,000 parking spaces. Inga Saffron has written a spot-on evaluation of the failure of this plan in today’s Inquirer.

The suburban style campus surrounded by parking that Subaru wants to bring to Camden.

The suburban style campus surrounded by parking that Subaru wants to bring to Camden.

From the perspective of those who thought, maybe, these tax breaks might actually lead to positive change in the city, as everyone working toward them has claimed, disappointment is the kindest word for what we are feeling. Devastation, bewilderment, and disgust are far more apt. This project could not be more disengaged from the city. Those parking spots guarantee that every single Subaru employee will drive in to work in the morning, stay on campus to eat lunch, and drive home at night. They will not interact with the city. Even if they wanted to, they are hardly given the chance. Employees would have to traverse a punishing sea of asphalt to get out of the suburban-style office park.

And the site’s lack of engagement isn’t the only issue. This asphalt will complicate the poor drainage that this part of Camden experiences. Even today, Admiral Wilson Boulevard constantly floods. Subaru has decided to not even incorporate rain gardens to address runoff that they saw fit to construct in their Cherry Hill and Pennsauken campuses. There are a few trees dotted throughout their parking lot which they claim add green space. It is a transparent attempt to pull one over on all of us.

When Campbell’s broadcast to the world that they were committed to building a forward-looking office complex in the Gateway district, they created glossy renderings of a successful future. Looking at Subaru’s plans for this site, it’s impossible to not conclude that that was a only marketing ploy for future tax breaks, and that no such office complex will arise. New Jersey taxpayers have once again been duped by greedy corporations and small-minded politicians who live in an alternate universe where tax breaks, trickle-down economics, and forcing suburbanization onto a city really works.

This is what Campbell's wants us to think Gateway will become. This will not happen with the current development mentality.

This is what Campbell’s wants us to think Gateway will become. This will not happen with the current development mentality.

This plan, should it get built, will set the city back decades. Successful cities and towns all around the country are working to undo the harm caused by sprawling development. Here in New Jersey, office parks like this are going empty as people seek dynamic, urban environments to work in. What Subaru is doing here is guaranteeing that South Jersey will pay for the privilege of living in an increasingly obsolete development model, truly a dying past, for decades to come.

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Development

Why the “colonial downtown” holds 21st century South Jersey back

When tattoo artist Jeffrey Miller first laid eyes on the old Collingswood theater, he had a vision. He was looking for a new space to expand his successful body art operation into, and the empty storefront on the ground floor of the iconic Collingswood building seemed perfect. The space was large, suitable for a retail operation in the front and rooms for tattoo procedures in the back. He saw a town that he thought welcomed all manner of artists, from painters to woodworkers, sculptors to coffee roasters, and thought he would fit right in. But when it came time to get his operation going, he quickly ran into a roadblock. Tattoo parlors were banned from operating in Collingswood. He would have to go in front of the zoning board to ask them to grant him a variance for operating his body art studio in town.

He certainly had civic support for his project. Tom Marchetty, owner of The Factory, a maker space on Fern Avenue (where Miller practices another of his crafts, creating handmade tattoo guns), put together a reception for those who wanted to get to know Miller before he made his pitch to the zoning board. People came out and learned about the project and the artist’s plans to very minimally impact the historic structure and to even have an architecturally relevant handmade wooden sign created for his studio. Overcoming a prohibition in any town is tough, and when the time came to go before the zoning board, Miller and Marchetty reached out on social media for supporters to testify in favor of the variance.

And that’s what they did. Supporters packed the small room where the zoning board meets during a hearing that stretched over two different sessions on two sweltering summer nights. When the time came for the public comment portion, 15 people (myself included) gave testimony in favor of the project. After the testimony, the chairman of the board remarked that all 15 people gave different, thoughtful reasons as to why they wanted to see a tattoo parlor come in to downtown Collingswood.

Unfortunately, when it came down to it, the borough didn’t support him. The zoning board vote was close, but ultimately it voted to deny Miller his variance. Though a majority of the board agreed to grant him a variance, it did not garner the required number of votes needed to bypass the prohibition. It failed by a single vote.

Though it was disappointing that the variance was denied, there was something more telling during the deliberation of the board before the vote. There was questioning as to whether or not this body art studio would match with the “character of the downtown” area. One board member (who eventually voted in favor of the variance) used the term “colonial downtown” to describe the commercial strip of Haddon Avenue that runs through the borough. It seems as though the question wasn’t so much about Jeffery Miller’s tattoo studio as what Collingswood sees as being appropriate to exist within its borders.

If you read the wording of Collingswood municipal code § 141-15.1 that prohibits tattoo parlors, you’ll find that that isn’t the only thing it prohibits. It also frowns upon “ice or roller skating rinks, establishments that show films or videos of any kind, massage or tattoo parlors, establishments utilizing plenary retain distribution licenses, bowling alleys or electronic or mechanical games of kind, including but not limited to pool, billiards or bingo, flea markets, discos and night clubs whether or not using a liquor license, accessory apartments, boarding homes and community residential homes.”

Some of these make more sense than others. A nightclub, for instance, might not be the best fit for an area that directly abuts a residential zone. But the spirit of the code is clear. Its first line declares that “all uses not expressly permitted as either a principal use, an accessory use or as a conditional use by this chapter are not permitted.” The borough wants the power to decide whether or not a business belongs within its borders, regardless of whether or not the market would support it. For a town where many storefronts stay empty for years on end, where promotion of restaurants is so intense that barely anyone comes to shop at its retail stores (resulting in high turnover and rolling community mental anguish), this is a problem. But it’s not only Collingswood’s problem. It’s nearly every other town’s problem as well.

South Jersey seems to consider its downtowns relics of the past to be preserved for quaint weekend trips, and not the thriving community centers they can be. Over the years, downtowns across the region were left to rot while strip malls and shopping plazas got all the retail, downtowns considered too antiquated for modern commerce. Think about traveling around the area. Major roads and signage are happy to point you to a shopping mall or fast food restaurant. But if you’re looking for downtown Bordentown, Mount Holly, Audubon, or Haddon Heights? You’re lucky if you see a “Historic Downtown this way” sign in your travels (and generally speaking, you won’t even see that).

For those towns that either only have an older downtown, or those with both a major highway and a downtown, the central, older part of the town is considered precious and fragile, something to shield from the modern world, as if the sensibilities of the present would damage the allure of our “colonial downtowns.” Think of Haddonfield, whose identity is inextricably tied to the relative antiquity of Kings Highway. There’s certainly no harm in celebrating the past. Too many towns tear it down for strip plazas as it is. But that appreciation can’t be the thing that chokes the town’s lifeline to the present.

Thriving towns always have a healthy mix of economic activity. Their governments do not choose the winners and losers. They do not promote one sector to the detriment of the other. They do not hand pick who gets to live where and what services they get to enjoy. They foster an environment of success without having to lay a heavy hand on the intimate workings of their domain. If the market and citizenry of Collingswood is ready to suffer the bureaucracy of multiple zoning board hearings but your municipal town does not allow it, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate your position in the economy of the 21st century.

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Transit

DRPA chooses gimmicks over fiscal responsibility and regional cooperation

Earlier this morning, the Courier Post reported that the Delaware River Port Authority, the agency that runs the bridges between South Jersey and Philadelphia and the PATCO High Speed Line, is bringing back a frequent-user discount that was axed 4 years ago.

The newspaper reports that DRPA is “expected to approve Wednesday morning’s finance committee recommendation to restore the $1 per round-trip discount that was eliminated in 2011” that would apply to the “30,000 commuters using DRPA bridges at least 18 days a month.”

It follows months-long public rumination on the return of the discount on the part of Jeffrey Nash, DRPA’s Vice Chairman (who is also a Democratic Camden County freeholder up for reelection in November). As nice as it is to see prices going down instead of up, this is absolutely the wrong policy decision at the wrong time. And the results of encouraging more driving could have disastrous effects on our neighbor to the west.

For decades, Center City Philadelphia was held prisoner by an obsession with cars. It leveled buildings to build parking lots and garages and it destroyed neighborhoods and access to the Delaware River waterfront to build interstates. Only in the past 15 years have city officials and regional planners realized that in order for the city to come back, it needs to focus on people, not cars. And it’s working. The city’s population is rising, it’s attracting young people at a greater clip than its peers, and construction cranes dot the skyline.

As a result, its citizens, both old and new, are getting around more and more without cars. The city has a high number of bike riders, recently bolstered by the launch of a bike share program. People are arriving more into the city by rail, especially on SEPTA’s regional rail lines. Philadelphia no longer has to obsess over accommodating cars in order to attract people.

Unfortunately, this message hasn’t reached the offices just across the river at the DRPA’s office on the Camden waterfront. The agency is still stuck in a dated mentality that favors cars above all else. Think about what it would mean if their resurrected discount was a runaway success and half of those who take PATCO today drove into the city instead. It would mean over 17,000 more cars on the road, resulting in more time wasted sitting in traffic, less time being productive at work in the morning, and less time at home with families and friends in the evening. It would mean more traffic in the city’s narrow streets and a harder time finding parking. It would mean more money lost to gas and rising parking costs, as land in the city gets more valuable as the city’s fortunes grow greater. And it would mean more pollution for a region that already suffers from the environmental damage done by factories and oil refineries.

In a world where more people drive into Philadelphia, there are no winners. The gains seen by saving a few dollars by driving across the DRPA bridges everyday would very quickly evaporate when factoring in the mountain of other costs more driving entails. Successful regions have spent the past 15 years getting people out of their cars and on their feet, on bikes, and on mass transit and seen increased productivity, economic, and public health outcomes as a result. I only wish that DRPA officials would take those cities’ leads and understood the regional ramifications of their decisions.

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Built Environment, Demographics

How job sprawl keeps New Jerseyans impoverished (and how we might be able to fix it)

I often blog about the somewhat abstract problems that the high level of suburban sprawl has created in New Jersey. But a recent New York Times article written by Mikayla Bouchard highlights a very specific problem created by the increasing distance between people and jobs. In her article, Bouchard highlights the role that simply getting to and from work plays in determining whether or not those living in impoverished neighborhoods have a chance to escape poverty. She writes:

“In a large, continuing study of upward mobility based at Harvard, commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.

The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community, said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the researchers on the study.”

While the focus for most people sharing this article has been the issue of the country’s inadequate transportation networks (and rightfully so; transportation of all sorts is not only inadequately funded not only at the federal level, but often at the state level, as is the unfortunate case in New Jersey), I think there’s a larger issue at play to consider. After all, transportation is merely a means to an end.

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The bigger issue here is that over the past decade, the distance between people and employment in metropolitan regions has increased. A study by the Brookings Institution published in March details that on average, “the number of jobs within the typical commute distance for residents in a major metro area fell by 7 percent” between 2000 and 20012. As the policies that encourage suburban sprawl have pushed people further and further from the urban core of regions, employers followed suit. The above chart effectively shows which areas of the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metropolitan region have seen job loses and which have seen job gains. The findings of this study correlate to the experiences described in the New York Times article. The below table shows the raw numbers, including which groups saw the largest decrease in nearby jobs.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 10.30.57 AMAs the numbers detail, the highest poverty areas saw larger-than-average decreases in nearby employment. What this translates to is that the most vulnerable population must travel increasingly further to find meaningful employment. And given that most “lower” and “middle” class jobs haven’t seen wage increases in quite a long time, this group is most likely to spend a large amount of what little money they make just getting to and from distant workplaces. What this means is that the chance to save money, to afford an apartment or house closer to your job, is extremely small. In the end, the cycle of poverty is solidified because sprawl has pushed jobs further and further away.

You can see this play out by looking at where residents of the city of Camden work. A study done by CamConnect revealed that an astonishing 79% of residents had to travel outside of the city to work, and that 53% of residents travel outside of Camden County for work. (And despite the proximity of and easy public transit connections to Center City, “only 4% of residents held their primary job in Philadelphia”, highlighting the similar lack of middle class jobs in that city as well.) In a city with a poverty rate that hovers around 40%, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that many people make their daily commute on public transportation. What this boils down to is the most poverty-vulnerable population in the county has to travel the furthest for work and spend more of their time and money getting there. Our pattern of suburban sprawl has guaranteed that, for the time being, their chances of escaping poverty are small.

So, why is this bad? Other than the moral argument that it’s unacceptable that the richest country in the world seemingly happily keeps large swaths of people imprisoned in toxic environments, what does it have to do with anything? Well, an argument can easily be made that this isn’t just a moral issue. Taxpayers end up spending millions upon millions of dollars on social services for those living in neighborhoods that don’t have easy access to the kinds of things that suburbanites take for granted, like good schools, clean grocery stores, and yes, access to jobs well-paying jobs. Some people would happily take those services away altogether, but, tattered though the fabric of our social contract is, that’s not going to happen. This means that at the same time towns attempt to keep building subdivisions and office parks in the middle of farm land, the state is going to keep trying to mitigate the negative social cost of doing so, and no one is much the better for it.

What can be done about this? I propose that we can stop the series of tax breaks aimed at wealthy companies to move to cities like Camden. Noble though the idea may be, there’s a large amount of skepticism that local city residents will be the recipients of the jobs coming in. Instead, these incentives should be used to support local businesses, which have a much higher chance of actually resulting in employment for people living in the city. That would wipe out the drag on households that having to travel to distant jobs engenders. It would result in people having more money invest in locally, which would enrich the community and eventually mean fewer people need to turn to costly social services and benefits, saving taxpayers millions in the long run.

We could further incentivize locating a business near transportation. Downtown Camden, for instance, is awash in a sea of parking lots located very close to both heavy and light rail in the form of the PATCO High Speed Line and NJ Transit’s River Line. And speaking of the River Line, there are many towns along its length that could benefit from increased investment and jobs.

Overall, anything that tilts the balance back toward areas accessible by more people than distant office parks, the better the general health of the region will be. As we’re learning, there is a very real financial and social cost to the sprawl that’s pushed us all apart. We don’t all have to live in cities, but moving jobs a little closer to where the people are would make a huge difference toward future prosperity.

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Elections

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?

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