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Paying Attention to New Jersey’s Future

Asbury Park Press, Oct. 20, 2013New Jersey Future Op-Ed Button

By Peter Kasabach  (pkasabachatnjfuturedotorg)  

One of the most difficult things successful political leaders must do is to make decisions on behalf of their constituents that might be politically unpopular in the short term, but help to secure a more stable future for generations to come.  New Jersey’s current economic stagnation brings this challenge into sharp focus: How can we invest the state’s limited funds strategically in ways that respect immediate budget needs but make the state more prosperous and globally competitive for the long term?

During and after this election season, it behooves our leaders at all levels to help the citizens of New Jersey focus on this long-term future, and citizens need to hold public officials at all levels accountable for doing the same.  Otherwise, difficult but necessary decisions tend not to get made.  Instead, we keep user fees down while pushing off onto our children the challenge of repairing our decaying bridges and roads.  We turn our backs on our older towns and cities while paving over another critical piece of open land.  We choose not to acknowledge the fact that rising housing costs make the state less competitive and more segregated.  We ignore weather-related hazards and simply rebuild what we had after a natural disaster, even when it keeps people and properties in harm’s way.

Four Issues for the Next Four Years

As we move past the election, it’s our hope that our leaders will spend more time focused on the long-term horizon and start making the critical decisions that will keep New Jersey competitive and prosperous for our children and grandchildren.  Here are four legacy issues that continue to escape focused, effective and future-oriented solutions, but which will need to be addressed over the next four years:

Upgrading our roads, bridges and transit infrastructure to world-class levels

Our failing transportation infrastructure is increasingly not meeting the needs of its users.  More than ever, businesses, commuters and residents can’t be sure they’ll get where they need to go safely and on time.  In particular, New Jersey’s excellent public transit system is struggling to meet growing demand, which will put more pressure on our roadways and discourage 21st-century employers who might consider coming to New Jersey.

Redeveloping older communities while preserving open space 

Too many of our transit-rich and older communities are characterized by obsolete, underutilized or abandoned properties, rather than new private investment that would regenerate the dynamic, walkable environments sought by both employers and residents.  Meanwhile, sprawl development replaces farms, watersheds and open lands, bringing with it new infrastructure that will require expensive maintenance for generations.   

Housing the workforce of today and tomorrow 

New Jersey struggles with some of the highest housing costs in the nation, and  our workers often cannot find housing they can afford within reasonable commuting distance of their jobs.  Unless we increase both supply and affordability in desirable locations, the highly educated Millennial workforce will bypass New Jersey as a place to work, and employers will locate elsewhere in their pursuit of the best talent.

Ensuring our communities and infrastructure can withstand severe weather

Superstorm Sandy was the biggest in a series of wake-up calls from natural disasters that have shut down our communities with power outages, floods and other property damage.  Our short-sighted development patterns have left us at great risk. Our poorly managed water infrastructure malfunctions daily, not just after storms, leaking clean drinking water and causing sewer back-ups and water pollution.  For our investments in rebuilding after this disaster to be effective, they must also make us better able to withstand the next one.

Our willingness to tackle these tough issues today is what will create a brighter, more secure future for our children and their children.  Let’s embolden our leaders to take on these important issues, and let’s insist they make the difficult, but necessary, decisions.

Peter Kasabach is executive director of New Jersey Future, a non-partisan land-use research and policy organization based in Trenton.

 

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