Route 92 report is puzzling to many

By: Hillary Parker, The Packet Group
South Brunswick Post, 10/05/2006

Opponents question report's lack of a recommendation, while Turnpike says highway is no longer a priority.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority's proposed Route 92 project, released Thursday by the New York District of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, provided more questions than answers about the east-west toll road.

Though the final EIS contains information on numerous aspects of the project and evaluates proposed alternatives -- such as no action or roadway capacity improvements to existing local and county roads -- it does not include a final recommended decision.

The final decision is not expected until sometime in 2007, according to the Army Corps, after the public comment period concludes Nov. 14 and the Turnpike Authority receives needed approvals from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, including a Water Quality Certificate. Comments submitted by individuals and agencies through Nov. 14 will be factored into the final decision, the Corps said.

The release of the report left several affected parties and interest groups puzzled.

"After all these years, and however many pages this document is, they can't make a recommendation?" asked South Brunswick resident Cathy Dowgin, a member of NO 92. "I find that appalling."

Not only is the final EIS report "deficient," said Laura Lynch, conservation chair of the New Jersey Sierra Club, it's "questionably legal" because it makes no final recommendation.

According to New Jersey Sierra Club Executive Director Jeff Tittel, a final EIS is legally required to make a recommendation — and Sierra Club officials think the fact that one isn't included isn't necessarily an oversight by the Army Corps.

"They might have done that on purpose because they don't want to get involved in (proposed Route 92) and (not making a recommendation) delays it," Ms. Lynch said. "They'll have to go back and do it and address the deficiencies. The state doesn't want to touch the project; the Army Corps doesn't want it. It's the only way for them to wriggle out of a difficult situation."

The Turnpike Authority was similarly baffled by the Army Corps' decision to release a final report without a recommendation.

"I don't understand the circumstances," said spokesman Joe Orlando. "I don't think anyone here really grasps it completely."

Whatever led to the Corps' decision to once again allow public comment, Mr. Orlando said it doesn't really matter to the Turnpike Authority.

"The bottom line is that the whole Route 92 project is not really a priority to us right now," he said. "Right now, the main priority is the widening of the turnpike."

This was the reason, he said, that $175 million of the $181.5 million originally earmarked for Route 92 was diverted to the turnpike widening project in December 2005. With the upcoming direct connection between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 95, Mr. Orlando said priorities have changed and it's essential that the widening project be fast-tracked to handle increased demand.

With an eye toward awarding contracts for the final design of the widening project at the end of this year or in the first quarter of 2007, Mr. Orlando said the Turnpike Authority is in the process of expediting the DEP permitting process for that project. Ideally, he said, the widening project would begin in late 2009 with a projected completion in 2013.

As for the Water Quality Certificate permit needed for the Route 92 project, Mr. Orlando reiterated that the project is definitely "on the backburner."

He added, "We're not going to be running down to the DEP tomorrow (for the proposed Route 92 permit). We're focused on the widening."

In the final EIS, the Corps noted, "The purpose of NJTA's Route 92 project is to improve regional mobility, especially east-west mobility, for the central New Jersey area in and around southwestern Middlesex County and northeastern Mercer County." There does not exist at this time, the report said, a connecting highway between Route 1 and the turnpike, which run parallel to each other for a nearly 25-mile stretch between New Brunswick and Trenton.

"My understanding is that the document is certainly not unfavorable to the roadway going forward," said Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu, long an outspoken proponent of the proposed 6.7-mile toll road, who said he was aware of the report on Thursday but had not yet reviewed the document. "Our position has been for years that any rational study of this will not only support the need for the roadway, but also support that it is the best solution."

The mayor said Plainsboro is likely to weigh in on the final EIS, continuing a more than 20-year involvement in the highly controversial proposal.

Like Mayor Cantu, Princeton Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand said she had not yet seen the final report and was hesitant to comment prior to reviewing it.

Provided the report does not indicate the proposed roadway would be "environmentally destructive," Mayor Marchand said she believed the community and the Regional Planning Board of Princeton would continue to endorse Route 92, as they have in the past. Historically, both Princetons, Cranbury, West Windsor and Plainsboro have been in favor of the project, while South Brunswick, Franklin, Montgomery, Rocky Hill, Hillsborough, Hopewell Township and Hopewell Borough have opposed it.

South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese was less than thrilled with the report.

"I think what the Army Corps did was punt here," he said, at the same time offering his support for the Turnpike Authority?s decision to divert funds to the widening project.

"I would've liked to have seen (the Corps) come down on the side of 'no, this isn't a good thing to do.'"

As for the actual environmental impacts of Route 92, the majority of the wetlands affected by the project would be in the Devil's Brook wetland complex, according to the report, which is part of a roughly 1,650-acre forested area in South Brunswick and Plainsboro. The proposed Route 92 would cross the southern half of the Devil's Brook wetland area, and the project would necessitate filling 12 acres of wetlands. The route would also cross the northern portion of the Plainsboro Preserve.

Officials from the New Jersey Audubon Society and the Army Corps of Engineers could not be reached for comment Thursday.

South Brunswick Post Staff Writer Bill Greenwood contributed to this report.