Codey wants 20 miles of Pike widened

The $1.2B project in Central Jersey spawns warning of a toll increase

Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

Launching one of the state's biggest highway projects in more than a decade, acting Gov. Richard Codey wants to widen 20 miles of the New Jersey Turnpike in Central Jersey, transportation officials said.

The massive project -- covering an often congested stretch of the Turnpike from Interchange 8A in Middlesex County to Interchange 6 in Burlington County -- could cost as much as $1.2 billion, officials said.

 Transportation activists warn the Turnpike likely would need a toll increase to pay for the widening, but they also say they would tolerate a hike to pay for a project that is crucial to the state's economic and transportation vitality.

"Given all the work they've got to do, you know they're not going to be able to come up with the money to pay for this without having to raise tolls," said Steve Carrellas, New Jersey coordinator of the National Motorists Association. "If they had to raise tolls, it would be more palatable because at least we're getting something tangible for it."

Codey will announce the initiative this morning during a meeting with the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, transportation officials said. Codey spokeswoman Kelley Heck did not return calls for comment.

Officials said yesterday it is premature to discuss how they would pay for the project or whether it would necessitate a toll hike.

An 18-month, $10 million study is being done to determine exactly how much the job would cost, how long it would take and how the extra lanes would be built. Officials say they are not sure whether the road, which is three lanes in each direction in that area, would expand to four lanes or five.

Traffic jams already are routine near Interchange 8A, where the Turnpike heading south shrinks from five lanes to three as part of the merger of the separate roads for trucks and cars.

Officials say the widening is needed to prevent Turnpike traffic in Central Jersey from grinding to a standstill after the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 2011 completes a ramp to Interstate 95, which they expect would funnel thousands more cars and trucks onto the New Jersey road.

"The gridlock down there is just unbelievable," said Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association. "This is really exciting news. I know it's not going to happen tomorrow. But hopefully it won't take 20 years, either."

Some activists and a Middlesex County legislator are suggesting the Turnpike ought to abandon its controversial plans to build Route 92, a proposed 6.7-mile extension from Interchange 8A to Route 1 in South Brunswick, and use the money set aside for that project for the widening. The Turnpike already has earmarked about $250 million of the $400 million cost for Route 92.

Transportation officials, however, insist the widening project will have no impact on their decision whether to proceed with the Route 92 project.

Even activists who routinely criticize highway widening projects are getting behind the Turnpike plan, largely because they see it as an opportunity to steer traffic away from local roads in Central Jersey.

"It's a great idea, but only if it's part of a package of improvements that creates a better road network in Central Jersey," said Janine Bauer, a transportation and environmental issues attorney.

"It's good for the region, it's good for mobility," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. "If you don't do it, the Turnpike will never move" once the Interstate 95 link to the Pennsylvania Turnpike is completed.

But, Tittel warned, the benefits of the expansion would be lost unless the state puts the brakes on new development in that region.

Officials said they do not expect major difficulties getting environmental permits and buying property for the widening project. Eventually, coming up with the money may be the biggest hurdle.

The Turnpike's last series of toll hikes, in 2000 and 2003, provided the revenue needed to borrow $950 million to cover the new interchange being built in Secaucus, the Route 92 project and other road improvements.

Now the Turnpike wants to eliminate its E-ZPass discount for rush hours and weekends, a move officials say will generate as much as $17 million a year to help cover debt on a $400 million package that includes rebuilding Interchange 12 in Carteret and repairs on several bridges.

Sen. Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon), who has been a fiscal watchdog in the Legislature, said the Turnpike plan has not yet been discussed with lawmakers.

"Obviously, I would want an analysis of the financing of such a proposal," Lance said.

Joe Malinconico covers transportation. He can be reached at or at (973) 392-4230.