Former NJDOT manager discusses modern vision for agency

BY Lyndsay Christian, Producer and Correspondent |

NJ Transit’s mission is to maintain transportation built through communities. But a former New Jersey Department of Transportation planning director is suggesting building communities through transportation. Gary Toth is with Lyndsay Christian.

Christian: Mr. Toth let’s take it back, so what was the original mission of the New Jersey Department of Transportation and how could it be modernized to meet the challenges of the 21st century?

Toth: Well, NJDOT is one of 50 state DOT’s around the country. They were originally created going back to the 50s and some of them before that to connect the country by roads. If you go back and read into the history of it, most of America was dirtroads in the 20s. They started to build roads in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s but there was a big push with the interstate system to connect the country with high speeds and safe roads. The original mission of NJDOT was what the other state’s DOT’s was to connect the high speed roads. They were given a mandate by congress which was pretty ambitious to build 40,000 miles of new roads in 20 years. They were structured to focus in on that mission and be sensitive to communities and in the environment. However, the primary mission always came first.

Christian: So, I know that you penned an op-ed on New Jersey Spotlight recently. Your theme, “Modernizing NJ Transit.” So, what do you propose or suggest the department does to move it forward?

Toth: Well, modernizing both NJ Transit and NJ DOT. And, with the 21st century then comes recognition that the mission has to change. Both NJ Transit and theNew Jersey Department of Transportation were extremely successful in connecting the state with safe and efficient service. But, it was for longer distance travel for moving goods and people around that was a good thing. There were some unintended consequences and they put the cities and communities at a disadvantage. So now the first mission is accomplished now we have to go back and complete the rest of the work. We have to support our cities, our communities, we have to build a biking and walking networks. So, really, fundamentally just rethinking both agencies that their mission is no longer simply moving people around efficiently and mobile, but also at the same time nurturing our economy, our communities and the health of our citizens.

Christian: It’s a great segue into my next question about the Transportation Trust Fund. $400 million dedicated to repair roads and highways. Do you think the department can revamp and modernize its status by dealing with or are they able to do that however they are dealing with short term issues.

Toth: Well, it’s nature of transportation around the country. New Jersey is no exception that there’s never really going to be enough money to do everything you want. So, it’s a matter of prioritizing.  Once we start thinking about the mission of transportation as more than mobility, it’s also nurturing our cities, our communities, the health of our citizens then you have different prioritization for that funding. And, some of the other ways of investing it like walking and biking, active transportation and in-transit. What it also does is it saves money in other silos. We have been looking at transportation in the silos, but if we invest in the health of our citizens, the obesity rate in this country is becoming alarming. The Center for Disease Control classifies it as an epidemic and in the U.S. 18 percent of it’s GDP is invested in health care which is double other nations and that cost is starting to cripple state and city economies. So, if we rethink the mission into a more global thing, we’ll get a better return on investment by splitting the money among many uses as opposed to simply maintaining the high speed mobility system.

Christian: The idea of combining New Jersey Transit and and state Department of Transportation funds to better utilize collective funds, is that a good idea? Are you behind that?

Toth: Well, I think you need more flexibility to decide where is the best place to spend the money. And so, you’re not talking about combining the agencies right?

Christian: No, just the funds.

Toth: Well, to a certain extent it’s already combined. When the state legislature passes its annual trust fund allotment, its divided amongst NJDOT and New Jersey Transit and I’ve been in on conversations when I used to work for NJDOT where some of DOT’s money was flexed over to NJ Transit. And so, it already started happening and I believe that again, you think of the mission, and the new mission is more global and then you figure out where the best, invest the money then you reallocate it based on that.

Christian: Mr. Toth, thank you for joining us.

Toth: Ok. thank you, it’s a pleasure.