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PRINCETON, NJ-In January, New Jersey Transit announced its Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project, which aims to revamp the tri-state area’s commuter rail system. The $8.7-billion centerpiece Mass Transit Tunnel project broke ground last Monday and on Thursday state planners, commissioners, transportation authority officials and educators gathered together for PlanSmart NJ’s daylong seminar at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to discuss the impact of this project.

The federal government has agreed to pitch in $3 billion in aid to get the tunnel done, with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey–$3 billion–and the state via New Jersey Transit–$2.7 billion–picking up the remainder. But what sort of results can the state expect to see from its investment? That was the question posed to panelists here. In an effort to answer this, AECOM vice president and practice leader Alden S. Raine, Ph.D. emphasized Boston’s increased sustainability following the “Big Dig,” which not only transformed the city’s infrastructure but also offered people affordable and convenient options for where they live and work. “While the project was certainly more costly than we first predicted, it has ultimately led to job growth in the metropolitan core, the rebirth of industrial cities and downtown with a focused growth in major suburban economic centers and new local bus connections.” He added that the resulting mixed-use growth expands housing choice and tax revenue.

The “Big Dig” discussion was followed by a transit panel moderated by Susan Bass Levin of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Panelists Otis Rolley, III, president and CEO of Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, and Stephen Del Guidice, Arlington Transit Bureau Chief, Arlington County Department of Environmental Services, discussed their respective municipalities approach to transportation. According to Rolley, Baltimore’s transit system lags behind that of Washington, DC primarily because of past inaction on the part of the state. Maryland is currently in the process of adding heavily to its transit capacity. “Don’t sit around and wait to make infrastructure improvements,” he said, adding that changing people’s mindset when it comes to public transportation is also key. “There are a number of racial and socio-economic stereotypes that still persist, which we are working hard to change,” he said.

During the afternoon panel, “Taking Transit to Sustainability,” moderator Mary K. Murphy, North Jersey Transportation Authority, and panelists Mark Strauss, FXFOWLE Architects, and Lance Freeman, Ph.D., Columbia University, discussed how regional planning is needed to break down the silos between jobs, housing, water, open space and reducing the concentration of poverty.

Ultimately, transit improvements will play a vital role in New Jersey’s Smart Growth movement, which is being spearheaded by the State Planning Commission and the Office of Smart Growth. “If we plan to guide future growth into compact, mixed-use developments we’re going to need an adequate transit system that reaches outlying communities,” Levin said. “We all love our cars in New Jersey so in order for this to work, public transportation needs to be convenient and accessible,” she added. According to NJ Transit officials, the increased rail capacity that will result from the MTT project will eventually eliminate 22,000 automobile trips daily. The project is slated for a 2017 completion.

However, the State Planning Commission and the Office of Smart Growth are currently facing some major budget constraints. A broad coalition of groups representing planners, developers, housing advocates, academics, the business community and commercial and agricultural interests recently called upon the Corzine administration to ensure that the both groups are given the resources they need to continue essential functions through this calendar year and beyond. In a letter to Gov. Corzine, the groups noted that five of the 10 seats for public/local government members on the State Planning Commission are vacant, while the Office of Smart Growth is functioning with a skeleton staff and has recently lost its executive director.

The groups urged the governor to take three immediate steps:

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