Rt. 92 EIS is inconclusive

By: Hillary Parker, The Packet Group
South Brunswick Post, 10/12/2006

Army Corps offers no recommendation

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued its final Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed toll road through South Brunswick, but failed to make a recommendation about the project.

The Route 92 EIS, released on Oct. 5 by the New York District of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, 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. But Army Corps officials say a recommendation will not come on the road until sometime in 2007, after the public comment period concludes Nov. 14. The Turnpike Authority also is awaiting approvals from the state 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.

South Brunswick residents and officials said the Army Corps shirked its responsibility.

"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."

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

"I think what the Army Corps did was punt here," he said last week.

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

South Brunswick has been the most active town among those opposing the proposed 6.7-mile, limited-access toll road. Franklin, Rocky Hill, Montgomery, Hillsborough and the Hopewells also officially opposed the road.

Plainsboro, the Princetons, Cranbury, West Windsor and Monroe supported the road, which was slated to connect Route 1 near Ridge Road with the Turnpike at Exit 8A.

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

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."

Peter Schugert, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers N.Y., office, said that the corps will complete the FEIS after public comment is collected, and the DEP issues a Water Quality Certificate for the road.

In addition, he said that the N.J. Turnpike has not told the Army Corps. to stop work on the project, and although it is not a priority for the N.J. Turnpike, the Corps will continue with its study.

The report outlines the environmental impacts of the project and explains its goals. Route 92, the report says, is meant to "improve regional mobility, especially east-west mobility, for the central New Jersey area in and around southwestern Middlesex County and northeastern Mercer County."

According to the report, there is no road that connects Route 1 and the Turnpike, which run parallel to each other for about 25-miles between New Brunswick and Trenton.

Route 92, the report said, was the only alternative that met the project's goals, with others — widening Route 1, for instance — partially meeting the project's goals. The study did not take into account the extension of Route 522 from Route 130 to Ridge Road near Route 535, which South Brunswick officials say will make Route 522 a useful alternative for traffic heading to the Turnpike.

As for the environmental impacts of Route 92, the majority of wetlands affected by the project would be in the Devil's Brook wetland complex, according to the report, which is part of a 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 would require filling 12 acres of wetlands. The route would also cross the northern portion of the Plainsboro Preserve.

According to the report, the proposed roadway would also displace about 210-acres of "active agricultural land," and interfere with access to an additional 78-acres of farmland.

The FEIS also stated that if built, Route 92 would increase truck traffic on Heathcote Road, which connects Routes 1 and 27 in Kingston. The FEIS recommends that weight restrictions be placed on the road and that traffic-calming measures be taken on the road, to prevent the trucks from using it.

In addition, the FEIS states that the interchanges for Route 92 would be located in industrial zones in the township and would not increase residential development in the township. However, it states that it could increase commercial development.

Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu, an outspoken proponent of Route 92, said Oct. 5. that Route 92 is still needed and that the report did not seem to be "unfavorable" to Plainsboro's position.

"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," he said.

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.

That may not matter. Mr. Orlando of the Turnpike Authority said Route 92 is no longer a priority.

"Right now, the main priority is the widening of the Turnpike," he said.

Mr. Orlando said that widening the Turnpike is the authority's main priority to accommodate a direct connection between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and N.J. Turnpike that's currently under construction; $175 million of the $181.5 million originally earmarked for Route 92 was diverted to the Turnpike widening project in December 2005. Mr. Orlando said the authority is expediting the DEP permitting process for the widening with an eye toward awarding contracts for final design at the end of this year or in the first quarter of 2007. 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."

South Brunswick Post Staff Writers Bill Greenwood and Joseph Harvie contributed to this report.

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