Route 92 impact debate a two-way street

Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Staff Writer, Trenton Times

A preliminary report assessing the environmental impact of Route 92 proves different people can review the same thing and come away with very different opinions.

"There should be no further question that Route 92 is a necessary and environmentally appropriate way to get through-traffic, particularly trucks, off our local roads, making our towns safer," said Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu.

Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Hamilton, saw things differently.

"The proposed Route 92 would be a $500 million road that will destroy wetlands, destroy parklands, destroy farmland, promote sprawl, affect hundreds of drinking wells, potentially destroy the habitat of endangered and threatened wildlife, risk contamination of our groundwater and still leave our roads congested and intersections as bad, if not worse. We must stop this road," Baroni said.

Both sides will get to make their case in public tomorrow when the Army Corps of Engineers hosts a long-awaited public hearing on the so-called draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) it authored on the New Jersey Turnpike Authority's proposed Route 92.

The road would be a nearly 7-mile limited access toll spur from Route 1 in South Brunswick to Turnpike Exit 8A in Monroe, with interchanges at Perrine Road and Route 130.

Proposed for decades, the plan has undergone numerous changes through the years but the public hearing scheduled for the Radisson Hotel Princeton in South Brunswick is a milestone.

The DEIS, developed after New Jersey approved permits for Route 92, only to have that effort rejected by the federal government, was unveiled in April.

It didn't take a position on the much-disputed proposal but did say that Route 92 would be the least disruptive way to provide a high-speed, east-west roadway and get traffic off local roads in northern Mercer and southern Middlesex counties.

The DEIS rejected other ideas as either ineffective or more damaging to the environment.

If Route 92 is built, the Army Corps said, about 14 acres of wetlands would be destroyed, although the Turnpike has proposed creating 57 new acres of wetlands and preserving about 200 acres of forested wetlands.

State Sen. Peter Inverso, R-Hamilton, has been on both sides of the highway dispute.

He once supported Route 92 but recently joined with Baroni to introduce a bill that would take away the Turnpike Authority's ability to build the road. Inverso said he supported the roadway years ago, when it would have cost about $260 million and been easier to build.

"It just seems like a project that hasn't been well thought-out," Inverso said. "If it were done 12 years ago, maybe it was a good road, but right now there's too many impacts."

He said the road won't improve traffic congestion on Route 1 and likely would make it worse by directly linking the roadway to the Turnpike.

"Think about what it will bring into Plainsboro, what it will bring into Princeton Township," Inverso said.

South Brunswick and its mayor, Frank Gambatese, have been among the most vehement opponents of Route 92, fearing it will destroy their township and historic Kingston village.

"They feel they're getting all the negatives from it and none of the benefits," Inverso said.

But West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, a Route 92 supporter, has said the proposed roadway should be viewed as a regional benefit. Princeton Township and Princeton Borough also have adopted resolutions supporting the highway.

Both sides have staked out their positions while focusing on traffic congestion and environmental protection:

Baroni noted Route 92 would destroy about 14 acres of wetlands and would either come near or go through the Plainsboro Preserve, Friendship Park, Sondek Park and farmland and would promote dramatic growth in central New Jersey.

Baroni said the project also could contaminate drinking wells and groundwater and threaten endangered species.

A group called 92 Now, which supports the highway construction, noted in a prepared statement that alternative projects would destroy even more wetlands and parkland and that, "Much of the development that is proposed would likely occur with or without proposed Route 92."

Supporters argue that areas where development probably would occur already are zoned for industrial and commercial use.

Route 92 foes contend the highway would dump thousands more vehicles on already jammed Route 1 and fail to improve area intersections. Baroni noted the DEIS found intersections that receive failing engineering ratings - such as Route 1-New Road, Route 27-Route 522, Route 130-Dey Road and Route 1-Route 522 - still would fail even if Route 92 were built.

Baroni said he's also worried that, according to the DEIS, Route 92 could attract 20 more trucks during busy hours to Ridge Road between Route 27 and Route 1.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, another Route 92 foe, said studies have shown no demand for a major east-west highway in the area.

"If they build Route 92, it will see so little traffic that Ford and Chrysler will probably show up to film some of those `You and the open road' commercials," said Jon Orcutt, the campaign's executive director. But supporters noted the DEIS said Route 92 would reduce nonlocal truck traffic on local roadways, cut east-west traffic on secondary roads by 18 percent by 2028, generally reduce rush-hour traffic on Route 1 and improve travel time between Route 1 and the Turnpike by 30 percent.

Supporters have found hope in DEIS' rejection of other ideas, such as widening Route 1.

The DEIS found widening Route 1 to six lanes would reduce traffic on local roads through the corridor by 10 percent and produce "more significant" reductions on Route 27 near Kingston.

But it also would attract more vehicles to the highway, including traffic from the Turnpike and Route 130, prompting Route 1 to "remain heavily congested in the peak hour in the peak direction."

"Anyone who takes the time to read this document will see that the opposition to this road is rooted in misinformation," Cantu said. "The Army Corps has done an excellent job of telling the true story about Route 92."

Don't tell that to Baroni.

"Having read the entire draft environmental impact study, I am convinced more than ever that Route 92 is the wrong road in the wrong place at the wrong time," Baroni said.

Tomorrow's hearing is scheduled in two sessions - from 2 to 5 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to midnight. The Army Corps said the hearing may end sooner if everyone wishing to give testimony has spoken.

Testimony will be limited to five minutes so everyone will have an opportunity to speak. Rebuttal testimony may be allowed, if time permits.

The Army Corps emphasized written information will be considered as equally as oral testimony.

Written comments can be submitted until 5 p.m. on June 14 by sending them to New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Regulatory Branch, ATTN: Route 92 DEIS, 26 Federal Plaza, Room 1937, New York, New York 10278-0090.

Comments also can be e-mailed to E-mailed comments should include the sender's name and address.