Funds transfer to Pike puts Rt. 92 plan on shaky ground

Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

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 said.

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 the issue.

"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.