The purpose of this Citizen’s Guide is to give an overview of how regional transportation planning takes place in northern and central New Jersey and to let you know how you can participate in this important process. The guide points out various opportunities for public involvement during the planning process. One thing to remember is that the earlier you get involved in the process, the more you can influence the future of our region, your county, your municipality and even your own neighborhood.
Many of the most important decisions regarding a transportation project are made years before a shovel breaks ground, during the early stages of regional planning and project development. The NJTPA thinks about the regionâ€™s transportation system in the decades to come and sets broad goals and priorities that are then reflected in regional investments.
Early and active involvement means greater influence over how millions—even billions—of public dollars get spent in our region.
What is the NJTPA and what does it do?
The NJTPA is the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for 13 counties in northern and central New Jersey. The federal government authorizes MPOs to conduct regional transportation planning and oversee transportation investment. This planning process ensures your transportation taxes are invested wisely to improve mobility, promote economic activity and safeguard the environment. Ultimately, all projects that use federal transportation dollars must be planned and approved through the NJTPA. The NJTPA oversees the investment of more than $1 billion a year in federal transportation funding in our 13-county region.
The NJTPA evaluates and approves proposed transportation improvement projects and programs. We also provide a forum for cooperative transportation planning efforts involving counties, municipalities and government agencies. We sponsor various transportation and planning studies, assist county and city planning agencies and monitor our region’s compliance with national air quality goals.
Who makes NJTPA decisions?
The NJTPA Board of Trustees ultimately makes the critical regional planning and funding decisions that shape our region’s future. The NJTPA staff works for the Board, providing technical guidance and support. The majority of the 20-member board is made up of elected officials from the region. The Board membership is shown below right.
The Board of Trustees meets the second Monday of every other month (commencing in January) at the NJTPA offices in downtown Newark. All meetings are open to the public. The Board of Trustees also has standing committees that review potential NJTPA actions, discuss agency activities and make recommendations to the full Board. The committees—Planning and Economic Development, Project Prioritization and Freight Initiatives—meet in the months when the Board does not. All meetings are open to the public.
Many of the counties and cities represented on the NJTPA Board—known as “subregions”—have transportation committees or advisory boards that meet regularly. Planners and engineers from the subregions participate in a Regional Transportation Advisory Committee.
History & Legislation
Regional planning bodies like the NJTPA were created to address a simple fact about transportation facilities: They span and link numerous communities over wide areas. A problem at one location, like a bridge closure or traffic tie-up, can spill over into surrounding areas and hamper the movement of large numbers of travelers.
Recognizing this reality, the federal government in the early 1970s required urbanized regions of the countryâ€”areas with more than 50,000 people that constitute distinct “commutersheds”â€”to establish formal planning bodies for transportation.
Composed of local elected officials and state agency representatives, these Metropolitan Planning Organizations or MPOs were tasked with achieving regional agreement on transportation investments. In 1991, the federal Intermodal Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA, greatly enhanced the authority of MPOs. It required their approval for allocating federal funding for many types of highway and transit projects. MPOs were also given responsibility for overseeing compliance with air quality standards.
Subsequent federal laws, including the current law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), have continued to strengthen the regional planning conducted by MPOs. In New Jersey, the NJTPA is one of three MPOs; the two others are the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization which covers four counties in the southeastern part of the state; and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission which covers Philadelphia and surrounding counties including four in South Jersey.
As explained below, the NJTPA’s investment priorities guide the state’s “implementing agencies”â€”principally, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) and NJ Transitâ€” which oversee project design, engineering and construction.
Nationwide there are nearly 400 MPOs. The NJTPA, serving 6.6 million people, is the fifth largest in terms of population
The Regional Transportation Plan
A key NJTPA function is developing and updating the region’s Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). This long-range plan is a blueprint for 25 years of transportation investment. It is a critical document, because all federally funded transportation projects in the region must flow from the plan. Inclusion in the plan is the all important first step toward making a transportation project idea into reality. The NJTPA updates the plan every four years to reflect our region’s ever-evolving conditions and priorities.
Federal regulations put limits on the plan. It can only contain projects that the region can reasonably expect to afford over the life of the plan.
In developing the plan and in conducting its ongoing planning activities, the NJTPA analyzes data on many aspects of the region and its transportation system. The data include where and how people travel, pavement condition ratings, accident rates, trends in housing and commercial development and a host of other measures. Analyzing the data allows the NJTPA to assess how the system is performing and identify current needs for improvement.
The NJTPA often uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to array data on maps to better assess patterns and relationships—for instance, how population growth in one area is affecting traffic volumes or transit ridership there.
The NJTPA also develops forecasts of future conditions and needs. This involves using computer models—essentially, desktop simulations of the transportation system—to predict how current trends will affect future transportation system performance. This allows the NJTPA Board to develop policies that can help shape the future of transportation.
The RTP also reflects findings of corridor studies which examine large stretches of our regional transportation system and a wide variety of transportation alternatives—road, rail, bicycle, pedestrian and possibly more. Many of these studies are conducted by the NJDOT, NJ Transit and NJTPA staff. The city and county subregions support these efforts through planning and studies of needs at a more local level.
In developing the RTP, the NJTPA meets extensively with its planning partners—cities, counties and state agencies—throughout the region. And, of course, the public plays a key role in putting together this important transportation plan. The NJTPA and its subregions host public meetings and workshops as part of studies of regional needs and in developing a long-range vision for our region. These are your opportunities to get involved on the ground floor of the planning process.
The RTP is the beginning of what’s commonly called the “project pipeline,” the process by which a project undergoes the various stages of work needed to make it a reality (see chart below).
Project Development Work Program
What happens after a transportation need is included in the Regional Transportation Plan? The next step is the Project Development Work Program (PDWP). Because the region’s needs far outstrip available resources, the NJTPA Board must choose the most pressing—and practical—needs to tackle. Dealing with some concerns (such as enhancing access to a growing regional center) may involve in-depth study of a variety of strategies and alternatives. Others (such as repairing a bridge) may involve more straightforward engineering questions.
In either case, the needs the region will address are included in the PDWP, the list of all project-specific transportation planning work underway in the region. The PDWP contains a variety of work, including technical studies focusing on highly specific, localized issues.
The PDWP covers the following phases of work, in sequence:
- Problem Screening: This phase investigates a potential transportation deficiency and develops a thorough Problem Statement.
- Concept Development: During this phase, project alternatives and strategies are analyzed and a preliminary preferred alternative (PPA) is developed. A well-defined and well-justified Purpose and Need Statement is drafted. Key Stakeholders are identified and engaged. Projects are scored, ranked and placed into the Project Pool.
The Transportation Improvement Program (TIP)
The Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) lists all projects for which federal funds will be spent. Developing this capital program allows the NJTPA Board to set priorities among the region’s many transportation projects. That in turn allows the agency to get the maximum benefit from available federal and state transportation dollars.
The TIP includes public transit, road, bicycle, pedestrian and freight-related projects. The TIP covers a four-year span and is updated every two years. It does more than simply list projects—it spells out the anticipated funding schedule and cost for each phase of the project. The TIP can serve as a year-by-year accounting of how government is spending transportation tax dollars on behalf of citizens.
By the time a project has reached the TIP, it is in its final stages. If you want to influence a project, it is wise to get involved at the earlier project development stages, when the exact nature of the project is still taking shape. Nevertheless, the NTJPA encourages public input on the TIP, which is updated every two years.
To help decide which projects should be included in the TIP, the NJTPA makes use of a “Project Prioritization Process” that scores projects on a variety of criteria. Points are awarded based on measures of how well projects will fulfill goals for transportation set in the NJTPA Regional Transportation Plan.
For instance, projects that will improve safety in locations with high accident rates receive extra points, as do projects that help redevelop abandoned industrial sites or channel growth to improvement districts designated by the state.
Once projects have been scored, the NJTPA consults with county and city representatives on the proposed project rankings, discusses the rankings at open public meetings of its Project Prioritization Committee and, finally, engages in negotiations with the NJDOT to mesh NJTPA priorities with those of the state and Governor. A final TIP is approved by the NJTPA Board and must then be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The finalized TIP funds and schedules the following phases of work, which culminate with a completed project:
- Preliminary Engineering: Projects are further developed and refined to a level of detail necessary to secure the approval of an environmental document. This is also known as the NEPA process (from the National Environmental Policy Act).
- Final Design: During this phase, detailed project specifications are developed and a contractor is selected. In addition, a utilities phase may occur during or after Final Design in which utilities are moved if necessary.
- Right of Way: This phase involves acquisition of property needed for the project. This phase can be timeconsuming and costly, as negotiations must take place and legal issues may need to be sorted out.
- Construction: This phase can last two or more years on major projects and is usually the most expensive.
In addition to funding projects at specific locations—such as redesigned intersections, resurfaced roads, rehabilitated bridges and upgraded traffic signals—the TIP also funds transportation “programs” which typically involve ongoing activities such as snow removal, bridge painting, maintenance of railroad tracks, etc.
The $2 billion or more invested in improving transportation each year in the NJTPA region derives from both state and federal sources—in most years, about evenly split between the two.
Both the state and the federal government maintain special accounts, called transportation trust funds, which receive proceeds from fuel taxes and other transportation fees and taxes. Outlays from the trust funds are largely dedicated to fulfilling transportation needs.
The NJTPA has responsibility under federal law for the investment of federal transportation funding. To be eligible for federal funds, a proposed project must be included in the NJTPA-approved TIP, discussed above. In developing the TIP, the NJTPA cooperates with the NJDOT and NJ Transit to determine how both federal and state transportation funding can be most cost effectively applied to meeting transportation needs.
Like the long-range plan, the TIP is required to be “fiscally constrained.” That is, it must be based on reasonable estimates of available funding. Nearly half of all the funding in the TIP is allocated to improving highways and bridges, with the remaining amount allocated to bus and rail transit. The large allocation for transit reflects the NJTPA’s commitment to safeguarding the environment and providing increased travel choices for residents.
The vast majority of funding allocated through the TIP goes toward maintaining or upgrading existing facilities rather than expanding the transportation system. This reflects a state of good repair approach to investments that is among the guiding principles adopted by the NJTPA as part of its long-range Regional Transportation Plan.
Regions such as northern New Jersey which have been designated as in “non-attainment” of federal air quality standards are required under federal law to take special steps to reduce pollutants.
Each year the NJTPA must demonstrate that the projects it approves through its TIP and Regional Transportation Plan will have a net positive impact on air quality and contribute to the achievement of the air quality goals contained in the New Jersey State Implementation Plan (SIP). The SIP governs pollution from all sources—not only from automobiles but from power plants, manufacturing and other sources. To annually demonstrate TIP/SIP “conformity,” the NJTPA uses computer modeling to estimate the emissions impact of approved projects. The NJTPA also administers programs and studies to help achieve state goals for reducing greenhouse gases and for improving energy efficiency.