EPA critical of Route 92 study

By:Matthew Kirdahy , Staff Writer
Princeton Packet, 07/22/2004

Federal regulators say DEIS incomplete

Federal regulators say a draft environmental study on Route 92 being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is incomplete and that the proposed highway may not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines.

The Army Corps will not comment on the EPA's submittal while it is under review, Koko Cronin, Army Corps spokeswoman, said.

The federal agency says the draft Environmental Impact Statement, which was made public in April, has insufficient information and that the study does not consider all alternatives to the proposed east-west toll road.

Robert Hargrove, chief of the EPA's strategic planning and multimedia programs branch, wrote in a July 13 letter to the Army Corps that the draft EIS dismisses "viable alternatives" to Route 92 and does not fully evaluate all "reasonable alternatives."

The Army Corps is reviewing the project because state and federal environmental agencies disagree over whether permits should be issued allowing the N.J. Turnpike Authority to fill wetlands to construct the 6.7-mile toll road. The EPA had denied permits in 1998 saying there were less disruptive alternatives. The state Department of Environmental Protection issued permits for the road in 1999.

The state permits expired March 29, but the N.J. Turnpike Authority has said it would reapply for the permits but has not said when. The Turnpike Authority says the four-lane highway, which would connect the Turnpike at Exit 8A with Route 1 near Ridge Road, is needed to alleviate traffic congestion on east-west roads.

The Army Corps unveiled its draft EIS to the public April 21. It held a public hearing on the more than 1,200-page document May 20. Members of the public and government agencies also had the opportunity to submit written comment until June 14. Ms. Cronin said the Army Corps granted the EPA an extension, because the federal organization is considered a cooperating agency. It also granted an extension to the state DEP's Division of Fish and Wildlife, which submitted its comments June 28.

The EPA submitted its comments July 13. In the letter, Mr. Hargrove says the EPA is "concerned that the draft EIS has not clearly demonstrated that there are no other practicable alternatives that meet the basic project purpose that are less environmentally damaging."

The letter says the draft EIS is biased because it promotes a hierarchy of highways, with regional highways carrying east-west traffic and local roads carrying local traffic. The EPA takes issue in the letter with the way need for the project has been framed. According to the EPA, the project purpose identified in the EIS "verges on a description of the applicant's preferred alternative, and potentially presupposes the alternatives analysis so that only a regional limited access highway alternative could meet that purpose."

The EPA wrote that Transportation System Management and Transportation Demand Management strategies should have been explored in conjunction with capacity improvements. The EPA said these strategies could prevent some of the environmental impacts that accompany the construction of a four-lane highway, like water and air pollution and the destruction of wetlands.

"Although the draft EIS states that such measures can be used in conjunction with the alternatives presented to improve traffic congestion, there is no indication that such strategies have been incorporated and seriously considered in the evaluation of each of the alternatives presented," Mr. Hargrove said.

Mr. Hargrove also writes that the "modified no-build alternative" mentioned in the draft EIS would avoid the loss of the majority wetlands and the most valuable wetlands within the proposed project corridor.

According to the EIS, building the road would mean filling 12.03 acres of wetlands, while an additional 1.16 acres would be permanently affected by shading from elevated sections of the road. To lessen the wetlands impact, the Turnpike Authority plans to create 57 acres of new wetlands, extending north and south of the proposed highway, east of Haypress Road. The Turnpike Authority plans to also preserve 202 acres of forest wetlands with some forest uplands in the vicinity of Friendship and Miller roads.

The EPA also said it could not at this time assess whether the wetland creation plan would be an adequate substitute for the proposed wetland impacts.

"We believe that the 'modified no-build alternative' identified in the draft EIS or another alternative may be practicable and may meet the basic project purpose as identified by EPA as an east-west transportation corridor," Mr. Hargrove said. "Furthermore, we are concerned that the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative may not have been selected and therefore, we believe that the project as proposed may not comply with the (Clean Water Act) guidelines."

In an attachment to the letter, the EPA addresses additional traffic concerns. It says Route 92 would likely attract more traffic that would otherwise not pass through the area.

"The draft EIS contains information on how growth is accounted for in the traffic modeling, however it is unclear whether the traffic modeling includes an assessment of induced growth and induced travel demand that would result from proposed Route 92," the EPA says.

The EPA also says that the EIS assumes that the population, traffic and employment growth would take place by 2028. The EIS also doesn't include towns beyond the eastern and western terminuses of Route 92 in Somerset County, west of Route 27 and southeastern Middlesex County, east of Route 535 that would be affected.

"It is likely that these travel improvements could induce both committed and uncommitted growth to occur more rapidly before 2028," the EPA says. "It is possible that these municipalities would experience induced growth as a result of regional east-west mobility and increased travel speed afforded by proposed Route 92. The population and employment growth forecasts for these municipalities should ideally be included among the core municipalities in the land use database as well."