Route 92 may not go through

Officials shift project funds toward Turnpike widening
Home News Tribune Online 11/30/05

State highway officials took away nearly all of the money set aside for the controversial Route 92 project yesterday and shifted the funds to plans for widening the New Jersey Turnpike.

The move by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority deals a blow to Route 92, the oft-criticized plan to build a new east-west road across Southern Middlesex County.

Longtime Route 92 opponents, including Cathy Dowgin, a member of an anti-Route 92 coalition, sensed that the reallocation of funds effectively kills the project.

"Widening the Turnpike will take away any perceived need for Route 92," Dowgin said yesterday. "No longer will the cars have to leave the Turnpike (when traffic backs up). Now they'll stay on the Turnpike where they belong." Dowgin, who has lived in South Brunswick since the 1980s and whose husband's family's roots in the township date to the 1920s, said that any price tagged to a Route 92 project doesn't account for wetlands mitigation or other costs, such as sound walls.

Anything beyond the project's original $350 million estimate, put forward in 1994, is way beyond the state's reach, Dowgin said. "It's basically the end of Route 92. Without money they can't do anything."

The Authority took $175 million set aside for Route 92 and instead will use it on plans to widen the Turnpike between Interchanges 6 and 8A. That leaves just $6.5 million for Route 92, which is now expected to cost $450 million.

"It basically kills Route 92," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter, which opposed the plan.

Turnpike officials, however, said Route 92 could go forward at some point in the future. The state would have to borrow to pay for it.

"This is not being done to kill the project as much as it is being done to prioritize the Turnpike widening," said authority spokesman Joseph Orlando. "The Turnpike widening project is a major initiative. It is our top priority right now."

He said the money has been sitting unused for five years as the state tries to get environmental permits for Route 92, which would be a 6.7-mile road connecting Route 1 and the the Turnpike at Interchange 8A, which is at the border of Monroe and South Brunswick.

The Turnpike plans call for widening the highway between Interchange 6 in Burlington County and Interchange 8A in Middlesex County, where traffic often builds as truck and car lanes merge. It is expected to cost $1.2 billion, and authority Executive Director Michael Lapolla hopes construction can begin in 2008 and conclude in 2013.

Route 92 proponents, including Middlesex County planning officials, have said the new road is needed to ease congestion in a fast-developing part of the county. Although there are many north-south highways, local or county roads have to handle east-west traffic, said George Ververides, Middlesex County planning director.

"The question arises, what are going to be the alternatives and how are we going to mitigate the congestion that already exists?" Ververides said.

Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu, a strong supporter of the road, yesterday said that opponents were perhaps jumping the gun by celebrating the decision. "I don't necessarily agree that's a death knell," Cantu said yesterday. "It's premature to bury this roadway." He said that both opponents and backers would need clarification from the Turnpike Authority before forming any definitive opinions.

Cantu, though, cautioned that the Turnpike Authority would be acting in "bad faith" if it chose to outright veto the project, particularly with an environmental impact study on the verge of completion and dissemination.

"Every reasonable transportation study has suggested this roadway is important" for east-west traffic traveling to the state's center, Cantu said. Route 92 would also serve a regional need, he said. Cantu predicted that the study, if done properly, would suggest that "it's sorely needed."

He said that municipalities that lined up against the project, such as South Brunswick, which he said was beginning to contribute an overflow of truck traffic that doesn't necessarily gravitate to the Turnpike as envisioned, were being myopic.

"Literally, there's been a lot of people that have closed their eyes to the facts of life," Cantu said.

South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese, a vocal Route 92 critic, said Route 92 would create additional traffic through South Brunswick, destroyed wetlands and cut through 300 acres of the township's prime farmland.

Gambatese was thrilled with yesterday's news.

"The people of South Brunswick should be commended for standing firm. David can stand up to Goliath sometimes," Gambatese said. "After years of fighting this thing, it's a pleasure to relax."

Contributing: Staff writers Richard Khavkine and Deborah Lynn Blumberg