Long road ahead for traffic-snarled county motorists

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:59

    Sussex County - Slow down. Look both ways. Now keep that foot on the brake. No one is going anywhere, at least not anytime soon. Transportation officials believe motorists are facing a long road ahead before efforts can be successfully addressed to minimize the increasing traffic congestion on county roadways. Those are the facts found in the 135-page mobility study released this month by the Sussex County freeholders. “It’s only going to get much worse,” said Sussex County transportation planner Tom Drabic. “This report confirms a lot of the issues and problems that we know are already out there. But it gives us the facts, the data and the backup to go to DOT to address our mobility problems.” Drabic hopes the report will lead to strategies and concepts to improve the county’s heavily burdened transportation infrastructure, which is facing increased congestion and growth, regional issues and response factors, and a lack of funding and public options. Using public surveys, field investigations, analysis and research, the study found that as Sussex County’s “bedroom community” continues to expand, more local residents will continue to access employment in other parts of New Jersey and beyond, primarily via three main “hotspots” - Routes 15, 23, and 206. The study reports the largest number of travelers along these points to be originating from Sparta and Vernon, followed by Byram and Hardyston. About 60 percent of all Sussex County residents travel out of county for employment, according to the study. “A lot of major employers in northern New Jersey depend on employees from our area and northern Pennsylvania,” said Drabic. “If those employees can’t get to work or are frazzled by the time they get to work, those companies will be more likely to move elsewhere.” Sussex County’s average commute time of 38 minutes - up five minutes from 2000 - is the longest in New Jersey, the report concluded. The state’s average 30-minute commute is the third-longest in the nation, behind only New York, 31.7 minutes, and Maryland, 31.2 minutes. “We’re in he boondocks, but it’s part of the problem because we don’t have many public transportation options,” said Drabic. “We won’t see significant job creation and people will continue to travel outside the county for employment. We need options to driving.” Drabic said the study focuses on short-term solutions because many larger state projects, including reopening the Lackawanna Cutoff rail line through Byram, are costlier and take longer to implement. “We need to act sooner rather than later,” said Drabic. “If we don’t at least try, there will never be any options. The competition for state funding is so intense.” Short-term recommendations include running shuttle buses to the NJ Transit train station in Dover, where 200 Sussex County residents are on a waiting list for commuter parking spaces. The study also calls for more commuter shuttle buses from the existing park-and-ride lots at Ross’ Corner in Frankford and at the Blue Heron interchange in Sparta. “We want to start expanding some of the intra-transit systems - bus services within the county - for people without a car or those households that are limited to one car,” said Drabic, who doesn’t foresee widening of Routes 80 and 15 north and west of their interchange in Dover anytime soon. “It doesn’t make sense to improve 15 any farther north because it will only bring people to the traffic jam on Route 80 even faster.” Drabic also said the county hopes to re-establish existing unpaved lanes to provide safer access onto Route 15 in Sparta and to free up space for expanding the Blue Heron park-and-ride lot. The study lists Smart Growth and Transit Oriented Development as the most critical issues for the county to address in the next 10 years. Drabic said these issues must be explored objectively with the future of transportation and mobility for the county in mind. Developing rail stations in Andover and possibly Sparta and re-opening the Lackawanna Cutoff through Byram are among long-term goals. Proponents of the $350 million plan believe the rail line would provide commuters with an alternative source of transportation from Pennsylvania into New York City while reducing traffic congestion and air pollution along I-80 and New Jersey’s other major highways. Byram maintains that a revival of the Lackawanna Cutoff would send more, longer diesel-powered trains -- some possibly carrying garbage -- through points in Northwest New Jersey and beyond, further complicating efforts to maintain sprawl. “It would be nice to have cooperation, but it might not be necessary,” said Drabic. “If we’re trying to improve the transportation needs of Sussex, Warren, and Morris counties, we have to look at the big picture.” In December, the freeholders will consider adopting the study and making any significant changes that arise from the current public comment period. The report can be found at the county Web site, www.sussex.nj.us.