NJ Turnpike will be expanded

Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Staff Writer, Trenton Times

The New Jersey Turnpike would be widened from Mansfield to Monroe under a proposal to ease rampant congestion that is expected to be announced today by acting Gov. Richard J. Codey.

The plan to widen the Turnpike for 21 miles from Exit 6 in Burlington County to the chronically jammed Exit 8A in Middlesex County is expected to be unveiled this morning by Codey at a Chamber of Commerce summit in Cherry Hill, sources said.

Codey's office referred calls to the state Transportation Department, which declined comment. But a state transportation official said Codey would unveil plans to begin an 18-month "scoping effort" that will determine the extent of the work, the cost, the time line and the completion date for the massive project.

 That effort, the official said, will take 18 months to complete, with estimates putting its cost at up to $10 million.

Expenses will be paid from New Jersey Turnpike Authority funds, but a toll increase also could be necessary to help pay for the project.

The plan will likely be approved by the Turnpike Authority's board during its meeting later this month, meaning the initial work could begin around February or March, the official said.

While "minor" wetlands and right-of-way issues are expected, the official said actual construction could begin in two to three years.

The official cautioned final cost estimates have not yet been determined - though some projections have put the cost at more than $1 billion - nor have details, such as how many lanes will be added to the Turnpike.

"It's too early to even talk about what we're looking at as far as a price tag," the official said.

The exploratory phase, the official said, will help clarify such questions, helping determine, for instance, whether construction will be done in sections or as one piece, and whether existing truck and bus lanes should be extended south.

"This is not an insignificant endeavor," the official said.

One detail, the official said, is known - the widening will include both sides of the highway.

Rush-hour traffic typically jams for miles at 8A as the Turnpike's three car lanes and two truck and bus lanes merge into a single three-lane highway.

The jam can extend for 10 miles, and recent accident data have shown twice as many accidents occur right before the merge as right after it.

About 6.5 million vehicles per year exit at 8A, where numerous warehouses have been built in recent years.

"This is a major undertaking," the transportation official said. "The governor recognizes that this has been a huge problem going on decades. It's the notorious 8A merge. That's how it's known in the state. These improvements are going to fix that problem."

The widening plan was praised by Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Hamilton, and Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Plainsboro. Both represent the 14th District, which includes much of where the Turnpike would be widened.

"I think it will help a lot," Greenstein said, adding she hoped a widened Turnpike would help get many cars and trucks off local roads.

Opponents of Route 92, a long-proposed, much-disputed Turnpike extension that would run from Route 1 in South Brunswick to Exit 8A, were hopeful Codey would pay for the Turnpike widening partly from the $400 million set aside for Route 92, but Turnpike Authority spokesman Joe Orlando said that's not true.

"No money is being diverted from Route 92 to this project," Orlando said, declining further comment.

But Jeff Tittel, executive director of New Jersey's Sierra Club chapter, said he doesn't see how the state could pay for both projects. He believes Route 92 won't be a priority once the Turnpike widening starts.

Supporters argue Route 92 would ease Route 1 congestion and provide a much-needed east-west traffic route, but critics contend the road would attract more vehicles to Route 1 and other local roads and destroy the environment.

"It eliminates the need for Route 92," Tittel said of widening the Turnpike from Exit 8A to Exit 6. "They're not going to be able to do both. First of all, they don't have the money, and Route 92 is still the worst sprawl-producing project in the state."

Tittel said widening the Turnpike to Exit 6 is important because Pennsylvania plans, within the next decade, to link the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 95 in Bucks County. The two turnpikes link, via an extension road, at Exit 6, and Tittel said that connection will make it easier for many trucks to get to the New Jersey Turnpike.

"We actually think that's a good alternative to building Route 92," Tittel said.

Widening the Turnpike, and easing the congestion, he said, also will help improve air quality.

Tittel said he took solace in comments Codey recently made to WNBC-TV that could indicate Route 92 isn't a priority for the acting governor, who took office Nov. 15 when Gov. James E. McGreevey resigned. Asked about Route 92, Codey said he wasn't "ready to do it today."

"There are some other projects that I think are more important than 92 that I want to do and we can do right away, and I think we should do," Codey said. "(Route) 92 isn't off my desk. It's just at the side of the desk right now."

Codey said a concern about Route 92 would be lawsuits that "may take years to wind through the courts and get a decision."

Codey's announcement today is expected during a "State of the Region" summit organized by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey and the New Castle County (Del.) Chamber of Commerce.