No hearing for Route 92 bill

By: Sharlee Joy DiMenichi , Staff Writer
South Brunswick Post, 03/11/2004

Assembly transportation chairman plans to wait for release of  environmental report.

The Assembly Transportation Committee will not hold hearings on a  proposed bill that would strip the N.J. Turnpike Authority of its  authorization to build Route 92 until after the U.S. Army Corps of  Engineers issues an environmental report on the project.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), who is chairman of the  committee, said Wednesday that it would be premature to review the bill  given that the federal government is reviewing the project.

The Army Corps has been reviewing the proposed 6.7-mile toll road  since 1999, after the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the  state Department of Environmental Protection disagreed on whether  environmental permits should be issued for the project. Environmental  permits are necessary because building the road would require filling in  wetlands.

The EPA refused to issue permits in 1998, saying there were less  environmentally invasive alternatives available. The DEP issued permits  in early 1999. A preliminary version of the EIS has been distributed to  the state Department of Transportation, the N.J. Turnpike Authority and  the state Fish and Wildlife Commission for comments, but no timetable  exists for issuing the final report.

Freshman Assemblyman Bill Baroni, a Republican who represents South  Brunswick, introduced legislation that would repeal the section of a  1991 law that authorized the Turnpike Authority to construct the  four-lane Turnpike spur, which is slated to run from Route 1 near Ridge  Road to the Turnpike at Exit 8A. A similar bill was introduced in the  state Senate by Sen. Peter Inverso, a Republican who also represents  South Brunswick.

Mr. Wisniewski said he would not hold public hearings on the bill  until after the Environmental Impact Statement was released. He said  members of the public are legally entitled to comment on environmental  impact statements.

While he would not comment directly during a telephone interview  Wednesday, Mr. Wisniewski criticized the bills in a letter to the South  Brunswick Post.

He called Route 92 a "sorely needed limited-access toll road" and  said residents "fed up with rising traffic congestion or who are in  construction trades may be saddened to learn" of the Baroni-Inverso  legislation. He also said that central New Jersey residents deserve to  hear from the Army Corps.

"The Route 92 project is still undergoing an exhaustive  environmental-impact study that had been ordered by the U.S. Army Corps  of Engineers," he wrote. "Central Jersey residents are still awaiting  that final report."

He criticized Mr. Baroni for "grandstanding and publicity seeking,"  while acknowledging that the assemblyman has been consistent in his  opposition to the road.

Sen. Inverso, however, is guilty of "blatant gamesmanship," Mr.  Wisniewski wrote, because the senator waited 13 years to oppose the road.

"If Sen. Inverso ever really wanted to oppose this project, he  should have introduced his bill during the 10 years when he and his  fellow Republicans had majority control at the State House," he wrote.  "He could have fought the administration of former Gov. Christie Todd  Whitman when her hand-picked commissioner of environmental protection  gave his support for the roadway in 1999. Moreover, he never stood up to  Gov. Whitman's former transportation commissioner, Frank Wilson, who  also endorsed the project."

Mr. Baroni said he did not need to hear from the Army Corps to take  a position on the road. He said the EPA's response to the road in 1998  should provide enough evidence that the highway would do environmental  damage and should not be built.

"I don't need to wait for the outcome of the EIS. This is a bad  road," Mr. Baroni said.

Mr. Baroni said that, even if Mr. Wisniewski does not want the bills  to become law, members of the public should have an opportunity to  comment on them.

 "I am writing the chairman to ask him to put the bill in front of  his committee for discussion so we can have a public hearing," Mr.  Baroni said.

Steve Cook, Sen. Inverso's chief of staff, acknowledged Wednesday  that the senator previously supported Route 92. He has come to oppose it  because of its environmental impact. Mr. Cook said Sen. Inverso also  found the price tag too costly for the lean economic times the state is  enduring.

"The better use of those funds is to fix deteriorating roadways,"  Mr. Cook said.

Early price estimates pegged the cost at about $300 million. Those  estimates have grown to more than $400 million over the last 10 years.