Public provides input on county’s 2016 transportation master plan

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Sticky notes flush with resident input were scattered across Union County-provided maps, strategically placed at areas of concern. There’s too much congestion here, a bridge needs attention there, this section of the road is unsafe for biking. The notes grew in number as the night wore on, each highlighting a transportation problem or suggestion across the county.

Getting to know residents’ concerns may help build a foundation for the county’s upcoming Master Transportation Plan, the county’s first since 2002, which was the purpose behind the plan’s first public meeting at the Cranford Community Center on Monday, Nov. 9.

Whether it’s through scribbling on sticky notes or taking an online survey via the county website, everyone’s suggestions are helping paint a complete picture, said county Freeholders.

“What’s critical is the participation, so that we get a true picture across the board,” said Freeholder Angel Estrada. “Anyone who has anything to contribute, this is the way to do it, because all of those things can be incorporated. It’s for all of us. I don’t know what impacts everybody out there — we have an idea, but I want to hear from them.”

Union County infrastructure, in several distinct ways, looks different than it did at the beginning of the last Master Transportation Plan, which was introduced in 2002. The Union Station opened, ramps on I-78 and the Garden State Parkway were built, and the Route 22 safety shuttle came into operation, among other developments.

The upcoming 2016 Master Transportation Plan represents an opportunity for similarly impactful improvements, thanks to federal support and a grant from the New Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, which is being matched by Union County.

Other than areas of concern that can come to light through residents, there are also major issues which need to be solved, long-term.

The crumbling underground tunnels between New Jersey and New York, for example, are estimated to fail within 20 years by the Raritan Valley Line Coalition, which would have major implications for state infrastructure. These are the kinds of problems the county needs to focus on in the upcoming plan, said Freeholder Bruce Bergen, in order to avoid “an unmitigated disaster.”

“There’s overriding neglect on the rail tunnels between Jersey and New York. The important thing is we have the state of New Jersey and the federal government working together toward a new rail tunnel,” said Bergen. “The idea is to look at where we are, look at where we want to be, and figure out what the best way is for us to get there, over the next three to five years. If you don’t plan ahead, you’re just reacting.”

Due to old age and prolonged periods of neglect, the county also features bridges in need of repairs — a problem that’s come about “not by choice, but due to a lack of funding from the state,” said Bergen — while preparing for potential changes in the transportation system, from driverless cars to projected population and employment growth. That’s a task to be tackled by the three firms working on the Master Transportation Plan, hired by the county earlier this year, including engineers with the RBA Group. Residents’ input and the firms’ groundwork will be put into the plan, which will be complete sometime in the first half of 2016.

“Through the summer and fall we’ve been collecting data, and conducting public outreach. That’s going to inform our analysis. We’re hoping to wrap up in spring of next year,” said Elizabeth Ward, representing The RBA Group in a presentation. “Why you’re here is because we’re starting our analysis part. We need, from you, help to identify some of the issues, opportunities, deficiencies, how the transportation system is working for you.”

On the county government side of the project, the 2016 Master Transportation Plan is being worked on by the Bureau of Transportation Planning, Division of Strategic Planning and Intergovernmental Relations in the Department of Economic Development, departments which plan on organizing more public meetings, in other parts of the county. That’s how the plan will take shape and evolve, said Freeholders, to help establish a framework for better infrastructure in Union County.

“We need to have a clear Master Transportation Plan in place, to address issues that not only affect us today, but that will affect us in the future,” said Estrada, pointing out the I-78 and Parkway connector, which was in the 2002 plan. “Resident input goes into everything that we do. People have to buy into these ideas. Have there been inputs, in the past, that have led to improvements? I think, very much so.”