Funds transfer to Pike puts Rt. 92 plan on shaky ground
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
BY JOE MALINCONICO AND SUE EPSTEIN
Highway officials dealt a major blow
to the Route 92 proposal in southern Middlesex County yesterday by shifting $175 million from that
controversial project to help pay for the widening of the New Jersey
Turnpike in Central Jersey.
The transfer of money marks the first significant investment in the
widening, which is estimated to cost at least $1.3 billion and take
until 2013 to complete.
Turnpike officials said adding extra
lanes to the often-clogged 20-mile stretch of highway between
Interchange 8A in Monroe Township, Middlesex County, and Interchange 6
in Mansfield, Burlington County, has
become their top priority.
Key details of the project -- like how many extra lanes would be built
and how they would be configured -- are being worked out in an
engineering study scheduled for completion next year.
"This will get us moving on the
widening," said Michael Lapolla, the turnpike's executive
director. "We really want to stay on schedule on this."
The funding shift approved by the Turnpike Authority yesterday leaves
the agency with just $6.5 million for the Route 92 project. The $450
million, 6.7-mile road was supposed to connect the Turnpike with Route
1 near Princeton Forrestal Center, an office park.
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 project, which would destroy 13 acres of
wetlands, has gained state environmental approvals, but has drawn
opposition from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
For the past year, Route 92 has been bogged down while state officials
await a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the wetland
issues. An Army Corps official said
there is no timetable for the release of the report.
Lapolla said yesterday's decision to use the $175 million for the
Turnpike widening should not be
viewed as a death knell for Route 92. The Turnpike could borrow
money for that project after the widening gets done, he said.
But opponents see it differently.
"This basically kills it; if it's not
dead, it's in a deep coma," said Jeff Tittel, director of the
New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. "Now
it has a couple billion dollars of projects ahead of it in line."
South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese called yesterday's action by the
Turnpike Authority "another victory
of David over Goliath."
"This is the defunding of Route 92 and
we couldn't be happier," he said.
Gambatese said the township has been setting money aside in every
budget to fight the project.
"Hopefully, now we can start using it for things we need to do," he
Cathy Dowgin, who led the "NO 92," campaign in town, said "this news makes me very happy."
"I thought I'd still be fighting this project in my old age," she said.
"Now, I want to see a headline that
says that 92 is dead."
The proposal's staunchest supporter, Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu,
viewed the Turnpike Authority's action as merely "a money transfer."
"They transfer money between accounts
all the time so I don't view this as unusual," said Cantu, who
has supported Route 92 because it would divert traffic from local roads
in Plainsboro. "As far as I know, it is still alive."
"We're waiting for the DEIS (draft Environmental Impact Statement) from
the Army Corps of Engineers and we're hoping that it will positive for
us and we can move forward with the project," Cantu said.
Acting Gov. Richard Codey has pushed
the widening to the top of his Turnpike agenda, but has remained
noncommittal on Route 92. It
was not clear yesterday where Gov.-elect Jon Corzine stands on
"We don't have enough information to comment," Corzine spokeswoman
Ivette Mendez said.
Even with the $175 million from the Route 92 account, highway officials still need more than $1
billion to pay for the widening. They say they do not know where they
are going to get the money.
Codey has said his successor may
eventually have to raise Turnpike tolls to pay for the project.
Right now, the Turnpike narrows from five lanes to three just south of
Interchange 8A, causing frequent traffic jams. Officials said they are
not sure whether they would add one or two lanes along the 20-mile
stretch of road. The ongoing design study will determine that answer,
as well as whether the road would extend the separate truck and car
lanes that operate north of Interchange 8A.