U.S. agencies not in accord on Rt. 92

EPA says study by Army Corps neglects alternatives
Thursday, July 15, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

Federal environmental officials objected to the findings of an Army Corps of Engineers study of the proposed Route 92, claiming the study did not consider enough alternatives to the controversial connector road between the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 1 in South Brunswick.

In a four-page letter to the Corps dated Tuesday, Robert Hargrove, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's strategic planning and multimedia programs branch, said the agency believes that there is a potential for "significant environmental impacts" should the project be built as it's proposed.

"Alternatives that are viable have been dismissed and the other reasonable combinations of alternatives that would meet the project's purpose and need with fewer environmental impacts, have not been analyzed," said the letter, addressed to Richard Tomer, chief of the Army Corps' regulatory branch.

The EPA's opposition to Route 92 could eventually scuttle the project unless a compromise can be reached that would satisfy the agency's concerns.

The letter was the federal agency's response to the Corps' 1,000-page draft environmental impact study of the proposed $400 million project that has been mired in controversy since the New Jersey Turnpike Authority first proposed it in 1996.

While the study, four years in the making, made no recommendation on whether the road should be built or the permit issued, it found that Route 92 as proposed by the Turnpike Authority, coupled with the actions the authority proposed to help minimize damage to the environment, had the least environmental impact.

The road would travel through three southern Middlesex County towns, but most of its length would be in South Brunswick. It would destroy more than 13 acres of wetlands -- the main reason the EPA initially opposed granting the Turnpike Authority a permit to fill in the wetlands in 1998 to construct the road.

The state Department of Environmental Protection issued the permits in 1999 over the EPA's objections, forcing the Corps to step in.

In 2000, the Corps ordered the Turnpike Authority to perform the environmental study. The draft of the study was unveiled in April.

In May, the Army corps held hearings on the draft and obtained testimony from both opponents and supporters of the project, a 6.7-mile toll road that would connect Route 1 and the Turnpike at Interchange 8A.

"EPA's concerns regarding the nature and extent of adverse environmental impacts associated with the proposed highway project are heightened by information that suggests that these impacts resulting from the Route 92 alternative are avoidable," Hargrove said to Tomer.

Courtney Katz, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said the agency will wait to see what changes are made to the final environmental impact statement.

"We'll see what changes they are willing to make," Katz said, before making a decision on what the EPA's next step will be.

The proposed route would travel through wetlands, farms and industrial parks. The environmental study authors found that construction of the highway would reduce traffic on local roads, but would take away 210 acres of farmland and interfere with access to another 78 acres.

But a two-page addition to the EPA's letter to the Army corps, disputes the study finding.

"We note that the traffic tables demonstrate that though the length of delay in the area appears to diminish with the Route 92 project, the project does not significantly solve much of the local congestion problem at roads and intersections," the letter said.

Dianne Brake, president of MSM Regional Council, a non- profit regional-planning organization that supports construction of Route 92, said she was "surprised" by the EPA's continued opposition to the project.

"I thought the draft study addressed all of the issues and concerns fairly well," Brake said. "There are reams of data and information. The project has been modified significantly to lessen the environmental impact, but every transportation project will have an environmental impact."

She said the project is needed to relieve the pressure on local roads caused by regional traffic trying to get from Route 1 to the Turnpike or from the Turnpike to Route 1.

Route 92 has some influential supporters, including the Middlesex County Board of Freeholders, Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu and Princeton University. Former Gov. Christie Whitman, who served as executive director of the EPA until last year when she resigned, also supported the project, as did Gov. James E. McGreevey when he was mayor of Woodbridge.

All of the elected officials in South Brunswick and many of its citizens are vocally opposed to the project, which they see as a threat to their way of life. Other elected officials in neighboring towns like Franklin Township and Rocky Hill also oppose the project.

Steve Masticola, a member of one of the activist groups that have carried the fight against the project, said he was "very pleased" with the EPA's continued opposition.

"I hope that the Army Corps of Engineers will now treat this input with the seriousness it deserves and scuttle 92 once and for all," Masticola said. "I also hope we can now move away from the kind of crooked backroom 'pay to pave' deals that have forced Route 92 and similar sprawl-inducing highway projects upon us."

Sue Epstein covers Middlesex County. She can be reached at sep stein@starledger.com or (732) 404-8085.