Army Corps issues Rt. 92 environmental impact statement

By: Matthew Kirdahy , Staff Writer

South Brunswick Post, 04/22/2004

Public hearing on 385-page document slated for May 20.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a Draft Environmental Impact Study to the public Wednesday that could determine whether Route 92 gets built.

The study reviews the environmental impact, traffic alternatives and traffic impacts on the region of Route 92 — a proposed 6.7-mile toll road that would connect the N.J. Turnpike at Exit 8A with Route 1 at Ridge Road.

While the draft EIS did not take a position on the highway, it said that construction of a new east-west highway would improve east-west traffic and provide an alternative for traffic moving north and south, and reduce traffic impacts on local roads.

Koko Cronin, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, had said in the past that the corps would not issue a recommendation on the roadway until all the cooperating agencies — the state Department of Transportation, the N.J. Turnpike Authority and the state Fish and Wildlife Commission — finished reviewing and commenting on the preliminary draft of the environmental impact statement. She was not in her office Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

The public will get to comment on the draft EIS at a public hearing slated for May 20 at the Raddisson Hotel on Route 1 in South Brunswick from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. with a pause for a dinner break.

At the public hearing, proponents and opponents to Route 92 will get speak on the 385-page study, which is available for review at the South Brunswick Public Library reference desk.

The Army Corps is conducting the review because federal and state environmental agencies disagree over whether permits should be issued for the filling of wetlands. The federal Environmental Protection Agency refused to issue permits in 1998, saying there were less environmentally disruptive alternatives, while the state Department of Environmental Protection issued permits in 1999.

The state permits expired March 29, but the Turnpike Authority has said it would apply to renew the permits, but wasn't sure when. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers has said it would continue its review.

The South Brunswick Township Council is opposed to the highway, as are the governing bodies of Hopewell Borough and Township, Montgomery, Franklin, Hillsborough and Rocky Hill. Plainsboro, Cranbury, North Brunswick, West Windsor, Monroe and Princeton Borough and Township are in favor of the highway.

 Local residents who reviewed the report on Wednesday, the first day it was available to the public, were critical of its findings.

"I reviewed the executive summary and thought that as EIS reports go, it seemed kind of noncommentary," South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese said Wednesday evening. "I didn't think it really defined a case for Route 92. At best, it was lukewarm."

Steve Masticola, a Kingston resident who has been a vocal opponent of the highway, called the report "sickening greenwash."

"It's making statements that contradict all common sense and scientific evidence," he said Wednesday. "When was the last time putting more asphalt down made traffic go away."

Dianne Brake, president of The Regional Planning Partnership (formerly known as the MSM Regional Council), a consortium of municipal governments and area businesses, said she needed to review the draft environmental report before commenting. Her organization has been a proponent of Route 92 from the start of the discussions.

"We were waiting to make be sure about our position is accurate," Ms. Brake said. "We support the position that an east-west connector is very important to the region."

Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu, who also favors the highway, said he also is waiting to read the report.

"We're pleased that it has been released," Mayor Cantu said. "(The DEIS) is a process called for and we're glad to see it moving forward."

Cathy Dowgin, who lives on Friendship Road near where the highway would be built, said she would try to ensure a large turnout of opponents at the public hearing.

"They're impressed by numbers," she said Wednesday. "We have to encourage people to go there, regardless of whether they speak or not, just to get bodies there and say that we're against it."

The Army Corps screened 17 alternatives for the draft study including a "no-action" alternative for environmental effects, socioeconomic effects and responsiveness to project purpose and need. Those not meeting the criteria were eliminated from further consideration.

Those that met the screening criteria were fully evaluated. They were a no-action alternative, construction of proposed Route 92, widening Route 1 and widening Route 1 and removing traffic signals.

The draft study said that a new east-west highway would provide a high-speed link between the major north-south highways in central New Jersey, improving east-west mobility, providing access to an alternative route for north-south traffic that now uses Route 1 and reducing the adverse impacts of through traffic on local communities.

The proposed project, which runs through parts of South Brunswick, Plainsboro and Monroe, would pass through land mostly used for agriculture, with lesser amounts of parkland and other open space, commercial and residential uses also present, the abstract portion of the DEIS says.

The DEIS reviewed existing environmental conditions, which it used as the basis of the impact evaluation of the no-action alternative. The environmental section includes sections on geology/soils, water resources, wetlands, fish and wildlife, farmland, historic and cultural resources, air quality, transportation noise, aesthetics, known contaminated sites, human health, socioceconomics, land use and environmental justice.

The Turnpike Authority would fill 12.03 acres of wetlands during the proposed construction of Route 92 and 1.16 acres would be permanently affected by shading from elevated section of the roadway, according to the EIS.

Analysis shows that proposed Route 92 would result in emissions of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides that are all significantly less than the no-action scenario, the EIS said. The proposed Route 92 is expected to meet EPA regulations.

Zoning in the study areas ranges from low-density residential to commercial to light industrial. The proposed Route 92 corridor passes mainly through office, research, conference and low-density residential areas. Approximately, 3.9 miles of the 6.7 miles of proposed Route 92 would pass through land currently assessed as farmland for property tax purposes. A significant stretch of the eastern portion of the proposed Route 92 would also pass through active agricultural land.

The proposed Route 92 roadway and associated interchanges would displace approximately 210 acres of active agricultural land. In addition, the proposed roadway would interfere with access to an additional 78 acres of agricultural land. None of the land is subject to preservation under the state Farmland Preservation Program.

In the demographic portion of the DEIS, it says South Brunswick has grown by 46 percent between 1990-2000, almost four times greater than 12 percent growth of the county population during the decade.

Since 1980, strong population and employment growth has occurred in the communities along Route 1 around Princeton, the report says. This growth has resulted in increased traffic volumes on the area's roads, including Route 1 and the local and secondary east-west roads, according to the report. Continued rapid growth is projected in this area over the next two decades, the report said.

The DEIS says the construction of Route 92 would result in a 17 percent reduction in peak-hour truck volume on the local and secondary east-west roads in the traffic study area and along Route 27 in Kingston

Peak-hour travel times are projected to decrease by an average of 10 percent if Route 92 is built, the report said. Travel times between Route 1 in Plainsboro and the Turnpike Exit 8A are expected to improve by about 30 percent, the report says.

Under the Route 1 widening and signal removal alternative, the amount of through traffic on the local and secondary east-west roads would be reduced by 10 percent, as compared with the no action alternative, the report said.

While a wider Route 1 could carry more traffic, but would also attract to Route 1 a large number of vehicles that would otherwise use alternate routes to avoid congestion on Route 1, the report says. As a result, Route 1 would remain heavily congested, it said. Most of the new traffic attracted to Route 1 would be routed away from Route 130 and the Turnpike, the report says, which would likely be left with spare capacity.

Peak-hour truck volumes on the local and secondary east-west roads would be expected to drop by 8 percent, as compared with the no-action scenario, the report said. The report said there is expected to be a surge in traffic congestion caused by a large amount of development over the next 25 years and that it would not be relieved by the no-action alternative.

According to the DEIS, the construction of proposed Route 92 is expected to reduce the amount of peak-hour through traffic on the local and secondary east-west roads by 18 percent in 2028, as compared with the no action alternative. Through traffic may decrease by more than 60 percent on several of these roads, the study says. In addition to reducing peak-hour traffic levels on the existing east-west roads in the study area, modeling indicates that construction of proposed Route 92 would generally reduce peak-hour traffic volumes along the most constricted portion of Route 1 in South Brunswick and North Brunswick. The traffic study area consists of South Brunswick, Plainsboro, Cranbury, West Windsor, East Windsor and Hightstown.

The DEIS also says the Army Corps will wait to discuss several specific impact issues at the public hearing that combine several environmental and socioeconomic factors. One of those factors includes transportation.