Why Does Roadwork Cost More in New Jersey?

By Briana Vannozzi

The Transportation Trust Fund tank is on “E” and decision makers in the state are still grappling over how to fill it. Some legislators say public confidence over spending could be gained if we really knew what’s driving the high cost of road work.

“Our expenditure per mile exceeds any other state by a large margin. So we have to get our costs under control, at the same time raising enough money to make the repairs that are necessary,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak.

A recent study published by Rutgers University Voorhees Transportation Center tallied the costs of planning, constructing, operating and maintaining New Jersey’s highway system.

“And what we found was that, on average, based on a review of annual expenditures over a period of five years, that costs were approximately $183,000 per lane mile,” said Rutgers Voorhees Transportation Center Director Jon Carnegie.

That’s right, more than $180,000 per mile. But transportation experts argue it’s a difficult calculation to make. And New Jersey has a slew of natural factors that make the price tag so heavy.

“We have some of the oldest transportation infrastructure in the nation and that means it’s going to be more costly to repair it,” said NJDOT Communication Director Steve Schapiro.

Schapiro says not only are we one of the most densely populated states we’re also a corridor state. Meaning, heavy truck traffic is breaking up the roads.

“We have to keep our roads open and traffic flowing as best as possible which means a lot of our work has to be done at night and unfortunately the cost of doing work at night is quite a bit more expensive than doing construction during the day,” he said.

“There’s also, I think, a vacuum for more procurement models that we don’t have in New Jersey that other states have,” said Utility and Transportation Contractors Association Executive Director Anthony Attanasio.

Cutting back on red tape, permitting processes and adding bidding models like one called “design build” could also help.

“Currently in the low bid system we have a design, bid, build. You get a design contractor’s bid, lowest responsible bidder gets the project. In a design build procurement model what you would have is teams of engineers and contractors who team up. An owning agency would present an idea or concept and then it’s actually the team who presents a plan on how to build it,” said Attanasio.

Though Attanasio says it’s not the best method for every project, it would also require legislative approval. Rutgers had a second phase of its study to examine specific projects and give a detailed breakdown of cost factors. But when the TTF dried up, so too did the research funding.

“People know and understand and are confident that we’re using their dollars efficiently and tax dollars efficiently then that will change people’s attitudes,” Lesniak said.

Lesniak wants to see phase two of the Rutgers study reinstated, even before there’s a TTF fix. It’ll cost $60,000 to do the research. He argues it could save millions.