Army Corps report puts Route 92 in limbo

Friday, October 06, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its final environmental study on the proposed Route 92 project in southern Middlesex County, and it is noteworthy for what it is lacking: a recommendation on whether permits should be granted to build the road.

In a press release, the Corps said there would be no final recommendation on whether to grant the permits to fill in almost 14 acres of freshwater wetlands to build the 6.7-mile toll road connecting Route 1 and the New Jersey Turnpike until the Turnpike Authority obtains all the permits and certificates it needs from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The move effectively places the project in limbo, according to officials, because the Turnpike Authority has transferred $175 million, all but $6 million of the money it held for construction of Route 92, to another account for use in widening the Turnpike from Interchange 8A in South Brunswick to Interchange 6 in Mansfield Township, Burlington County.

"Our spending priorities right now are the widening the Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway," said Turnpike Authority spokesman Joseph Orlando. "The project to widen the Turnpike is the largest undertaken by the authority since the Turnpike was constructed 50 years ago and is a bigger necessity than anything else right now."

The move disappointed both opponents and supporters of the project yesterday.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club -- a main opponent of the project -- said the whole study should be redone because it doesn't take the Turnpike widening project into consideration.

Damien Newton, the New Jersey coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an activist organization that opposed the project, said the Army Corps "punted."

"They're saying they'll wait until the Turnpike does something," Newton said. "It's a great example of government bureaucracy. The project is not going anywhere but the permitting process is going on anyway."

South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese said he found it "difficult to comment" on a study that made no recommendations.

Gambatese, whose township residents and governing body have actively opposed the road, said he believes the project "is a dead issue."

 Dianne Brake, director of the Regional Planning Partnership of Middlesex, Somerset and Mercer Counties, a nonprofit planning partnership, a supporter of the Route 92 project, was "very disappointed."

"We also support the widening of the Turnpike," Brake said. "I understand in times of limited resources, choices have to be made, but we've been studying this road for so many years. Widening our north-south routes is very important, but the need for an east-west connector is still very important for the growth of this region."

Entangled in political intrigue and criticism from environmentalists, Route 92 has been controversial almost since it was first proposed more than 15 years ago.

The road would travel through farms, industrial parks and open space, mostly in South Brunswick. The $450 million project had gained state approvals to fill in the wet lands in 1999 over the objections of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, forcing the Army Corps to step in.

But the permit approvals ex pired last year, and the Turnpike Authority had to reapply to the state for new ones.

The Corps issued its draft environmental impact statement on the project two years ago. While the agency made no recommendations on which route the road should take, the study did indicate that the proposed road is needed to meet the traffic demands in southern Middlesex County.

After the draft environmental study was released, the EPA reiterated its opposition to the granting of the permit.

Sue Epstein covers Middlesex County. She can be reached by phone at (732) 404-8085 or by e-mail at sep