Route 92 money diverted to widening turnpike

By: Emily Craighead and Joseph Harvie, The Packet Group    
Princeton Packet, 12/02/2005

Opponents cheer and advocates deny move is a setback

Opponents of Route 92 may be cheering, but supporters say the New Jersey Turnpike Authority's decision to use most of the money set aside for Route 92 to widen the Turnpike in Central Jersey is just a business decision.

The authority on Tuesday said it will take about $175 million of the $181.5 million set aside for the proposed Turnpike spur and use it for the widening project, said Joe Orlando, spokesman for the authority. The authority borrowed that money five years ago, and terms of that loan required that the money be spent sooner than the Route 92 project would have began.

The authority plans to add new lanes in both directions between Interchanges 6 and 8A.

"It looks like it's not a dead issue," West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh said. "Since the money was just sitting there, they might as well use it for a higher-priority project."

The authority still plans to move forward with Route 92 — a proposed 6.7-mile toll road connecting Route 1 near Ridge Road to Interchange 8A — once federal environmental permits are issued, according to Mr. Orlando. There is still $6.5 million set aside for the project.

The money is being shifted because the widening project was more urgent, the terms of the loan required the money be spent, and Route 92 does not have an anticipated start date, officials said.

The highway has been opposed by South Brunswick, Franklin, Montgomery, Rocky Hill, Hillsborough and Hopewell Township and Hopewell Borough. Princeton Township, Princeton Borough, Cranbury, West Windsor and Plainsboro are all on record supporting its construction.

South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese said the decision to reallocate the money is a "huge" step toward getting the road off the books. The township and an organized group of residents have been fighting the road for more than 10 years.

In neighboring Plainsboro, Mayor Peter Cantu said the news was "not particularly earth-shattering.

"At this point in time, it is obvious there is a need for funding for widening the southern part of the Turnpike," he said.

Princeton Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman said she would still support Route 92, depending on its alignment.

"There are still benefits depending on how it's developed," Mayor Trotman said. "If it doesn't do something to relieve traffic in the Princetons, I might not be so happy to see it."

Mayor Cantu said his next step would be to reach out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ask for the release of the final environmental impact statement. The Army Corps released a draft version of the EIS in April 2004.

The authority has been working on Route 92 since 1991, when the state Legislature approved a measure transferring responsibility for the road from the state Department of Transportation. It approved the alignment in the mid-1990s, but has not received federal environmental approval. The state Department of Environmental Protection issued permits in 1998, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency balked, sending the project to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The project is essential to moving traffic off local roads, according to Dianne Brake, president of the Regional Planning Partnership, a nonprofit smart-growth research organization advocating better land-use planning and regional cooperation.

"We hope that when the new administration looks at this, that the need for an east-west connector is so important that they would not be able to ignore it," she said.

The need for an east-west connector is heightened, according to Mayor Hsueh, by the University Medical Center at Princeton's decision to move the hospital to Route 1 in Plainsboro.

"I really feel we need to start looking into traffic on a regional level," he said.

Assemblyman Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton), whose 14th Assembly District includes West Windsor, Plainsboro and South Brunswick, said he was pleased with the authority's decision. He and state Sen. Peter Inverso (R-Hamilton) had called on acting Gov. Richard Codey to reallocate the money after the acting governor announced the widening plan in December 2004.

"One of my biggest objectives when I took office was to stop Route 92," Assemblyman Baroni said. "I think this goes a long way to preserving the critical environmental areas in South Brunswick."

Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro), who also represents the 14th District, said moving the cash will allow the Turnpike widening to take place at the same time the Pennsylvania Turnpike is being expanded. The Pennsylvania Turnpike is being extended to meet with New Jersey Turnpike Interchange 6 and is expected to be completed in 2011.

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