New Jersey Set to Expand Turnpike


Published: December 1, 2004
New York Times

NEWARK, Nov. 30 - For the first time in 20 years, New Jersey officials have proposed a significant expansion of the New Jersey Turnpike, an estimated $1.3 billion project that would add lanes to a stretch of roadway long known as an infuriating bottleneck.

The proposal, expected to be announced Wednesday by Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, would add additional truck lanes in both directions between Exit 8A in Jamesburg and Exit 6, where the highway connects with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, according to state transportation officials.

Trucking industry officials and others said the proposal, coming at a time when the state faces budget deficits and is unable to get federal funding for toll roads, was likely to require increases in highway tolls and possibly an increase in the state fuel tax.

Mr. Codey is scheduled to announce the proposal in Cherry Hill at a speech to Pennsylvania and New Jersey business groups. According to transportation officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Mr. Codey considers the corridor "one of the worst congestion spots in the state." Some 120,000 vehicles a day pass through the 21-mile stretch of roadway.

The southbound side is notorious because it is where two truck lanes and three car lanes slim down to just three lanes in all and trucks are fed into the car lanes. At all hours of the day or night, backups can stretch for miles to the north. The problem is made worse because there is a rest stop on the southbound side, where the lanes come together. On the northbound side, where the turnpike has three lanes up to Exit 8A, the problem stems from both congestion and lane jockeying by drivers anticipating the widening of the roadway.

Transportation officials said the governor's proposal to expand the roadway was spurred last month by Pennsylvania's decision to build a new interchange where the Pennsylvania Turnpike enters New Jersey and meets a spur from the New Jersey Turnpike.

That interchange is expected to funnel even more truck and automobile traffic onto the 52-year-old New Jersey Turnpike, along a booming corridor of warehouses and distribution centers that is already increasing traffic in the central New Jersey area.

One state transportation official who requested anonymity said the need to fix the problem in that area was widely recognized as long overdue.

"You have to think about the importance of this corridor to the state's economy, because it carries commuters and trucks from the port loaded with goods going to distribution centers for the whole region," the official said. "You can not overstate its importance."

News of the expansion plan was greeted happily, though with some caution, by trucking industry officials and representatives of drivers' groups in the state.

Gail Toth, a spokesman for the New Jersey Motor Truck Association, said the news was "a welcome surprise" to an industry that had watched various other proposals to ease the congestion fail amid budgetary and environmental concerns.

She said that by a conservative count, 147 warehouses and distribution centers have grown up around Exit 8A in recent years and that some employed as many as 400 people. Because there is little or no public transportation in that part of the state, she said, most of those workers must drive to work.

At the same time, she said, residential development is also booming in the area. "And all you have is the little old turnpike going through there," she said.

She said the industry was willing to pay increased tolls and even higher fuel taxes, so long as "they are properly phased in" to allow the industry to adjust.

Steve Carellas, the president of the New Jersey Motorist Association, said his group liked "the idea of increased capacity when there is a need" but was concerned about higher tolls. Further, he said, the debt service on the bonds for such an expansion was at least three times what the state was projecting.

Environmental groups and others said an additional benefit of the expansion was that it might eliminate the need for a proposed 6.5-mile spur at Exit 8A to carry truck traffic west to Route 1, Interstate 295 and other roadways into Pennsylvania. Environmentalists had opposed that long-planned road, listed as Route 92, arguing that it would destroy several acres of wetlands. Local residents also fear it will seed even more development in an area where there are still farms.

But Gov. James E. McGreevey and labor union supporters had long fought to keep the road proposal alive, and $244 million was set aside for it in the New Jersey Turnpike Authority budget.

One state transportation official cautioned, however, that there has been no change in the state's support for Route 92 and that it remained part of the state's "strategic plan" for easing congestion. He also said there were no plans to use the money set aside for that road to help pay for widening the turnpike.

That official said the first step in the project was to spend up to $10 million in existing New Jersey Turnpike Authority funds on an 18-month study of the cost, environmental and right-of-way barriers and construction schedule. Only then, he said, would officials focus on how to pay for the work.

"The very preliminary view is that a shovel might go into the ground in three years with completion in 2012 to 2015," he said.