We’ve all had the experience of being stuck in traffic. Now it’s possible for drivers to do something about it. Crowd sourced apps like Waze, Google Maps and Apple Maps provide instantaneous, firsthand information about clear roads that bypass the jam. Drivers can now get around everyday congestion at places like the George Washington Bridge approaches by leaving the highway and taking surface roads through the surrounding towns. As a result, residential communities find their streets as traffic clogged as the through roads.
Historically, towns have deterred unwanted commuter traffic by intense speed law enforcement on secondary roads during rush hour. But that doesn’t work when congestion brings cars to a near standstill. One town, Leonia, thinks it has a solution. Since Jan. 22, it has limited the use of local roads during rush hour to tag-bearing cars of residents and people who work in the borough.
It is by no means clear that local home rule control over public roads extends that far. Municipalities may accept streets “dedicated to public use” (N.J.S.A. 40:67-1(b)), and they may close streets to “motor vehicle traffic” during specified times when they find that “the public safety, health or welfare” requires it (N.J.S.A. 40:67-16.9). N.J.S.A. 39:4-197(1)(b) delegates to municipalities the authority to enact ordinances “limiting the use of streets to certain classes of vehicles.” It is at best questionable whether “the public” is limited to those who live and work in town, or whether the power to classify vehicles allows discrimination against non-residents. It is especially questionable when the streets, as in Leonia’s case, form part of the approaches to a major interstate thoroughfare, and the ordinance affects the flow of interstate commerce.
Town-by-town exclusion of rush hour traffic is a recipe for chaos. The total volume of traffic is not about to diminish. If one town pushes it out, drivers will clog the somewhat less convenient surface roads of neighboring towns as the navigation apps show them the way around both highway jams and legal barriers. New Jersey parochialism will lead every town to shield itself by pushing unwanted commuters onto its neighbors.
This new problem can only be solved rationally on a regional basis. N.J.S.A. 39:4-8 requires that municipal ordinances regulating traffic must be approved by the commissioner of transportation, except in those categories authorized by statute, and notice must be given to other municipalities affected by a proposed ordinance. We urge the incoming commissioner of transportation to promptly review the issue and determine whether Leonia’s proposed action is authorized by law, to exercise the full scope of his review power under N.J.S.A. 39:4-8, and to request from the Legislature whatever additional authority is required to impose a regional solution that effectively balances traffic flow against the local interest in preventing congestion.