OP-ED: BAN CARS FROM LINCOLN TUNNEL AT RUSH HOUR TO MAKE IT THROUGH ROUTE 495 REPAIRS

The logical way to ease congestion is to reduce the number of vehicles entering the tunnel

Axel Hellman

Axel Hellman

Commuting into New York City from New Jersey is a challenge even in “normal” conditions (e.g., bright blue skies, no car accidents, minimal traffic delays). Unfortunately, starting on August 16, commuters will face a new — unfortunate — normal, with the Route 495 Viaduct repair project reducing capacity by one lane to and from the Lincoln Tunnel.

The entire commuter bus network of New Jersey, and the long-distance bus network across the Northeast, feed into this roadway. The resulting traffic congestion threatens to snarl the commutes of hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans every day. However, this traffic nightmare can be prevented.

If this roadway-maintenance project is not properly handled, the consequences could be dire. It could take hours for commuters to get to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Delays and cancellations will be widespread.

Let’s do the math

Delays on 495 will mean that each commuter bus that runs back and forth between New Jersey and the city will get more and more delayed as the day goes on. Even minor delays add up quickly. Let’s do the math.

Let’s assume a given bus makes six round trips a day between Montclair and New York. If the 495 project causes the trip in each direction to take just 10 extra minutes, that bus will be running two hours late by the end of the day: 6 trips x 2 ways x 10 minutes = 120 minutes of delay.

How to avoid a meltdown

Multiply this effect across the hundreds of commuter buses, public and private, in our state. The system, which is already unreliable, could enter a full meltdown.

Despite acknowledgement from the New Jersey Department of Transportation — the agency overseeing the construction — that the project will have dire consequences for both bus and car commuters, it has not provided a concrete solution to ease commuter delays; no plans for alternate additional bus service to give car commuters extra options; no extra ferry service; no temporary park-and-ride lots.

Contrary to today, when the DOT closed the Pulaski Skyway in 2014, it converted shoulders on parallel bridges to traffic lanes, created extra bus routes, and set up a park-and-ride shuttle service. Concrete solutions were implemented to give commuters other options.

All we have heard from the DOT is a lackluster suggestion that commuters should “plan alternate routes.” But for bus commuters, who outnumber car commuters into the Lincoln Tunnel by more than 10 to one, there is no alternate route.

There is a simple solution. Logically, if the number of lanes going into the tunnel decreases, we must reduce the number of vehicles entering. To make things work, we must eliminate the vehicles that are carrying the fewest people and causing the most congestion.

Give priority to bus commuters

The answer is to ban cars from the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour. I know, shocking, but let’s look at the stats.

Why ban cars? Recent estimates from the Hub Bound Travel survey shows that of about 102,000 people who enter Manhattan via the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour, only 11,000 are in vans, trucks, and cars. If you take out the van passengers and the truck drivers, only a fraction of those left are actual car commuters. Compare the more than 91,000 daily bus commuters to the relatively small number of people who are using their cars. By the numbers, giving priority to 91,000 bus commuters is only fair.

Don’t feel bad for these car commuters. They have plenty of alternatives to choose from. They can park at an NJ Transit lot just two miles from the tunnel entrance and take a $4 bus ride into the city. They can take a ferry. They can take a train. They can drive early in the morning, or — if their work situation permits — work from home. Don’t worry, they will find a better way to get to work (and probably save the cost of parking too).

There are benefits to banning cars, and few disadvantages. Without cars in the way, we can have two Exclusive Bus Lanes (XBL) into the tunnel, instead of one. We can reduce delays at the Port Authority. We can reduce pollution. That hypothetical bus to Montclair from an earlier paragraph could make seven trips a day instead of six. Bus commutes could actually get faster, not slower.

These next few weeks could be a make-or-break time for transportation in New Jersey. We have two choices: One, to just close the lanes, watch the traffic build up, and accept that it will screw up the lives of tens of thousands of bus riders. The second is to use this as an opportunity to make a transformative decision that will give us a commuter-bus network that actually works.

Axel Hellman is an expert in the planning and creation of profitable bus routes. He has worked at a number of transportation agencies, including New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and has conducted research on many forms of private-sector transit including New Jersey’s jitney-bus system. He is co-founder of OurBus, a tech company specializing in crowdsourced bus routes, operating in NJ, with routes across the country. He received a B.S. in Public Policy and Urban Planning and a Master of Planning (transportation and infrastructure planning) from the University of Southern California.

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