Crowd at hearing pans Rt. 92 study

 By: Matthew Kirdahy , Staff Writer    
South Brunswick Post, 05/27/2004

About 86 percent of those speaking at hearing voice their disapproval of highway.

Of the 70 people who spoke at a hearing on Route 92 last week, only eight supported the N.J. Turnpike Authority's plans to build the east-west toll road, which proponents say would ease traffic congestion in the region.

On the other side, opposition to the proposed 6.7-mile road was strong, with members of the Township Council, state legislators and South Brunswick residents letting their opinions be known. Critics of the highway derided it as an unnecessary "road to no place" that would damage the environment and actually increase traffic on local roads, including historic Kingston.

The May 20 hearing was part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' study of the proposed Route 92. The controversy centers on the Corps' draft Environmental Impact Statement, released April 21. The study says that, in some cases, Route 92 will alleviate some of the traffic problems in South Brunswick and surrounding towns in Middlesex County.

As part of the process, public comment will continue through June 14, although there will be no more public hearings until the final EIS is released. Comments submitted in writing and recorded in a private recording booth were accepted at the public hearing, with the names of people kept private.

 The Army Corps is conducting the study to determine if environmental permits should be issued to the N.J. Turnpike Authority for the proposed highway. A final EIS will not be issued until the public comments are transcribed and evaluated.

The Army Corps will contact all public hearing attendees by mail who completed a hearing registration with locations where they can find the transcripts.

In the final EIS, the Army Corps will address the concerns raised by the members of the public, as the hearing was just a source of gathering information.

Among those that were vocal about their disapproval of the draft EIS and the highway were Township Council members Carol Barrett, Edmund Luciano Jr., Ted Van Hessen and Chris Killmurray. Mayor Frank Gambatese was out of the country, but has voiced his opposition in the past.

Two sessions comprised the hearing, one that ran from 2 to 5 p.m. and one that ran from 7 p.m. to midnight. Each person had to register for an opportunity to speak.

Lt. Col. Kurt Hoffman of the Army Corps said there were about 10 people who didn't get a chance to speak in the afternoon session, but had an opportunity to re-register at the evening session, where there were few empty seats. There were no speakers remaining by 11:40 p.m.

Opponents of Route 92 argued that Route 522, which runs east-west, provides the same function of what Route 92 would do without the financial burden and environmental degradation. At the same time, opponents questioned why Route 522 was barely mentioned in the EIS report. People wanted to know about the environmental impact on the land both during and after construction.

Residents of Kingston said their community, which already deals with narrow roadways and traffic backups on Route 27 and intersecting roads, needs to be considered in the final EIS to make the study legitimate.

Opponents of Route 92 also wanted to see more public input from the residents, like those in South Brunswick who are directly affected by this toll road proposal.

On the other hand, supporters agreed with the findings of the Army Corps in its EIS, saying the highway would have minimal environmental and community impact when compared to the what would happen if no action is taken on regional traffic problems. Supporters called the EIS thorough and a clear indication of what this area needs to do to alleviate traffic problems.

During the afternoon session, Michael Gerrard, an attorney hired by South Brunswick to help fight Route 92, told the Army Corps the EIS did not satisfy the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.

Since the Turnpike Authority's environmental permits expired March 29, environmental and storm water runoff regulations have changed and he said the final EIS should include the new regulations.

The state DEP issued permits to the Turnpike Authority in 1999 after the federal Environmental Protection Agency refused to issue permits in 1998 saying there were less environmentally disruptive alternatives to Route 92. The N.J. Turnpike Authority has said it would reapply for permits.

Mr. Gerrard called Route 92, a road that would connect the Turnpike at Exit 8A to Route 1 at Ridge Road, an "impermissible segmentation of the region." He said the draft EIS didn't look closely enough at the road's impact on wildlife.

"The highway would only make a trivial contribution to (easing) traffic in this area and in some areas be counterproductive," he said.

Assemblyman Bill Baroni and Steve Cook, spokesperson for state Sen. Peter Inverso, Republicans who represent South Brunswick and Plainsboro, also spoke in opposition to Route 92. Mr. Cook read a statement prepared by the senator.

Sen. Inverso wrote that he had supported original plans for Route 92, which carried a smaller price tag and would have had less of an impact on the environment and local comminutes.

Hopewell Township Committeeman Jon Edwards said the Army Corps should examine a bus rapid transit route as an alternative for motorists. Hopewell adopted resolutions opposing Route 92 in 1999 and 2000 he said.

"We need to get together and find solutions that don't include roads like this," Mr. Edwards said.

Shirley Eberle, a Franklin Township councilwoman, read Franklin's resolution in opposition of Route 92 just before George Ververides, the Middlesex County director of planning, offered the first comments of the afternoon in favor of Route 92.

"Good east-west movement in this region is paramount," Mr. Ververides said. "The warehousing areas of the 8A corridor are going to be important to that total project. The original Route 92 plan to connect Route 206 to Hightstown was something the county supported 25 years ago," he said.

"We have one of the largest consumer markets in this part of the country and we feel that 92 will help to support that," Mr. Ververides said. "We are aware of South Brunswick Township's concerns, but at the same time we see the development in places like South Brunswick. And since it's the fastest growing township in the region, we have to create that east-west connector."

Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu voiced his township's support of Route 92, prompting boos from the audience.

"We believe that Route 92 is a roadway essential not just to Plainsboro's future, but also to that of the region," Mr. Cantu said. "This is a position that has not been arrived at casually or emotionally, but one born out of careful, independent evaluation. It is clear from all the studies that have been done, including the recently completed Draft EIS, that Route 92 is not only needed, but also critical to the transportation circulation system of the region."

Plainsboro Planning Board member Arthur Lehrhaupt backed the mayor's comments saying that roads like Dey Road are turning into the "defacto Route 92," with traffic damaging the agricultural character of the region. This could be kept from worsening if Route 92 gets built, he said.

"This highway should be built for the sake of the area and its residents," Mr. Lehrhaupt said. "A hierarchy of roads is essential so that our infrastructure is used for traffic volume they were planning to handle. It is imperative that this critical east-west road is built."

Robert Sheehan, Plainsboro township administrator, said Route 92 is the project that has been key regarding Plainsboro's land use and development decisions.

"Now is the time to build the lost piece of our transportation puzzle," Mr. Sheehan said. "It's time to act. It's time to build this road."

Supporters applauded.

Bob Wolfe, general manager of Princeton Forrestal Center, said the EIS traffic study is thorough and the environmental impacts will come despite the development of Route 92. Under the proposal, Route 92 will have an interchange on Perrine Road, which will be realigned with the entrance to the Forrestal Center.

"Route 92 will substantially reduce traffic far better than the other alternatives," Mr. Wolfe said. "Smart growth does not mean no roads should be built. They need to be built to help sustain development and protect the environment. Route 92 has been designed smart in order to avoid pitfalls of the past."

Dianne Brake, president of The Regional Planning Partnership, said her organization has reviewed a possible Route 92 for 25 years and it believes the highway is about creating a network to alleviate the regional traffic problems. She said the delay in the project is a good thing because it will adhere to the latest storm water rules and improve water quality even more.

Edward Cohen of Monroe said the state Department of Transportation considers traffic at Exit 8A the worst in the state. He said that in the EIS there are no impediments to constructing the first part of the highway from Route 1.

Cranbury Township resident Bill Wymer said he was for the highway and he sees no better alternative to Route 92. He is a former South Brunswick resident.

Howard Bellizio, a former South Brunswick Township Committeeman and mayor, didn't say if he was for or against the highway. But, he said the township endorsed the highway in 1984, when it was supposed to connect Route 95 and the N.J. Turnpike. If Route 92 is built, he said, the state has to consider widening Route 1 and possibly building an overpass offering greater access to surrounding areas, not just the Turnpike.

"Route 1 would have to be widened in any case," said South Brunswick resident David Southgate, who opposes the highway.

Elizabeth Palius, chairwoman of the Millstone Valley Preservation Coalition, called Route 92 "the highway that goes no place."

"Why does this road magically stop at Route 1?" Ms. Palius asked.

Cathy Dowgin, a South Brunswick resident who has helped lead residents against Route 92, said the average of four-and-a-half minutes off car trips shown in the EIS is a bad reason to damage nature and that it could possibly worsen traffic problems.

She talked about the absence of Route 522 in the EIS. She also said that the highway would end at the narrowest part of Route 1 worsening the existing traffic backups.

"Is four minutes really worth wasting so much of our environment and wasting so much of our money?" Ms. Dowgin said.