Speakers at hearing denounce Route 92 plan

Impact study is called 'inadequate'

Friday, May 21, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

The majority of speakers yesterday at a public hearing in South Brunswick told the Army Corps of Engineers that its 1,000-page environmental study of the proposed Route 92 was "inadequate," "not worth the money" and "incomplete."

Of the 150 people at the afternoon hearing -- the first of two held yesterday to solicit public comment on the study -- about 130 were opposed to the construction of the 6.7-mile toll road that would connect Route 1 and the New Jersey Turnpike at Interchange 8A.

The study, which took four years to complete, made no recommendations on whether the road should be built or the permit issued, but it found that Route 92 as proposed by the Turnpike Authority, coupled with actions the authority proposed to help minimize environmental damage, was the most effective way to reduce traffic on local roads with the least environmental impact.

The road would travel through three southern Middlesex County towns, but most of its length would be in South Brunswick. It would destroy more than 12 acres of wetlands -- the main reason the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opposed granting the Turnpike Authority a permit to fill in the wetlands in 1998 to construct the road.

The state Department of Environmental Protection issued the permits in 1999 over the EPA's objections, forcing the Army corps to step in.

In 2000, the Army corps ordered the Turnpike Authority to perform the environmental study -- the draft of which was unveiled last month.

Route 92 has some influential supporters, including the Middlesex County Board of Freeholders, Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu and Princeton University. Former Gov. Christie Whitman also supported the project, and Gov. James E. McGreevey supported it when he was mayor of Woodbridge.

Neither the state Department of Environmental Protection nor the EPA sent representatives to yesterday's hearing, but the towns that oppose the road were well-represented.

Carol Barrett, the deputy mayor of South Brunswick, presented the Army corps with 500 letters from concerned senior citizens who oppose the road -- many of whom live in its path and face the loss of their homes.

"We have 500 more to come," she said.

Councilman Edward Van Hessen called Route 92, "a private driveway for the Forrestal Village (in Plainsboro)" and warned the traffic dumped onto Route 1 would just worsen existing traffic congestion on the heavily traveled north- south corridor.

Craig Marshall, the township's planning director, testified the "environmental impact of this road is unacceptable. We have to plan for the future, and Route 92 should not be a part of that future."

Michael Gerrard, the New York environmental attorney hired by South Brunswick to fight the project, attacked the study, arguing it violated federal laws, including the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by not addressing the requirements in either law.

Shirley Eberle, a councilwoman in Franklin Township in Somerset County, testified that "Franklin Township is adamantly opposed to Route 92 and urges Gov. McGreevey to cancel the project and use the money for other needed transportation projects."

Assemblyman Bill Baroni (R- Middlesex), whose legislative district includes South Brunswick and Plainsboro, said the project, estimated to cost between $350 million and $500 million, "is the wrong road, at the wrong place and at the wrong time."

But, George Ververides, Middlesex County's planning director, said the road was necessary to meet the traffic needs of one of the county's most congested regions.

"There are millions of square feet of warehouse space in this region that service the developing port facilities in Jersey City and Elizabeth," Ververides said. "The goods coming in at the ports must be distributed, and they will be distributed to warehouses around Interchange 8A. The county has always supported east-west movement in the region. The county feels Route 92 would provide that."

He said county officials are concerned about the environment, but "our concerns are from the region's perspective."

"We understand South Brunswick's concern about the environmental impact on their town," Ververides said. "But, if you check the 2000 Census figures, you'll see that South Brunswick is the fastest growing township in this region of the county."

The Army corps also received written comments from a coalition of Route 92 supporters who call themselves "92 NOW" and includes Cantu and mayors from several Mercer County towns, including Princeton Township and Princeton Borough.

According to a letter from 92 NOW, "we are pleased to see that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued an environmental impact statement, which should put to rest any questions about the need for Route 92."

"The 400 page document ... and its accompanying appendices, which total over 1,000 pages, thoroughly studies the project and its potential impacts and finds that the road alignment proposed to the Turnpike Authority not only meets the project's stated need and purpose, but also does so with the least harm to the environmental or local communities."

Anyone wishing to submit written comment on the study has until June 14. After that, all of the comment that is collected will be reviewed, and a final version of the environmental-impact study will be written and released.

The Army corps will use the findings in the final study to decide whether to issue the wetlands permit to the Turnpike Authority.

Sue Epstein covers Middlesex County. She can be reached at sep stein@starledger.com or (732) 404-8085.