Turnpike scrambles to salvage a new exit
$250M project lacks a major destination
Monday, August 15, 2005
BY JOE MALINCONICO
When the New Jersey Turnpike this fall opens 15X, its $250 million
interchange in Secaucus, the exit ramps will carry traffic right past
the entrance to NJ Transit's massive new rail station.
But commuters looking to park their
cars and hop a train from the Secaucus Junction station will be out of
luck. Back in the late 1990s, state transportation officials opted not
to put any parking at the $609 million train station.
And parking won't be the only thing
Work has yet to begin on Allied
Junction Corp.'s massive commercial complex -- five high-rise office
buildings and a hotel -- that was supposed to sit atop the train
station and be a major destination for the highway exit. Plans remain on the drawing board, where
they have lingered more than a decade.
Without the parking spaces and office towers, highway executives are
scrambling to salvage something from the new interchange, a project
watchdog groups consider a boondoggle.
"The (Turnpike) project made sense at
one point, but the reasons for it have gone away," said Damien
Newton, New Jersey coordinator for Tri-Station Transportation Campaign.
"It seems like it's kept moving
forward on its own inertia. It doesn't seem like the best way to use
the Turnpike's money."
The money for the new interchange,
which is scheduled to open in November, came from a Turnpike toll increase
that went into effect in September 2000.
"There are certainly portions of the
Turnpike where that money could have been used and it would have
benefited more drivers than this will," said Janine Bauer, an
environmental and transportation issues attorney and activist.
As work on the interchange winds down, key state officials -- none of
whom were in office when the initial decisions were made on the
Secaucus complex -- have changed course and are looking to put parking
at the train station.
"It's an issue that has the governor's
attention," said Kelley Heck, spokeswoman for acting Gov.
In the past, officials said putting a parking garage at the rail
complex, which is a few miles from the Lincoln Tunnel, would exacerbate
traffic jams in the area. In their view, the Secaucus Junction station
-- where seven rail lines intersect -- would be a place where people
came and went by train, transferring from one train to another.
After George Warrington took over as executive director of NJ Transit
in 2002, the agency became more receptive to adding parking to Secaucus
Edison Properties, which owns land near the Secaucus station, has had
discussions with NJ Transit about providing parking at the site, said
the company's owner, Jerome Gottesman.
"The public agencies already have invested a substantial sum of money
in the site," Warrington said. "At this point, we're looking to
encourage private investment in the parking."
The Turnpike authority and NJ Transit
already have picked up the tab for about $150 million in work Allied
Junction was supposed to pay for under agreements reached in the
1990s, officials said. That includes about $30 million to make the
train station's foundation strong enough to hold offices above it, $84
million to relocate railroad tracks and $40 million for a new road
connecting the Turnpike ramps to an industrial road in Secaucus.
On top of everything else, the
Turnpike had to pay $6 million to relocate about 4,600 graves from the
site, which officials said once had been a potter's field.
Michael Lapolla, who became the Turnpike's executive director in 2002,
said he was not happy with the Secaucus deal he inherited.
The agreement, Lapolla said, gave the developers eight years before
they start paying back the public agencies and the interest would not
kick in until after work started on the commercial complex.
"It's hard to fathom," Lapolla said. "If I could redo, I would
negotiate terms that were at least fair to the Turnpike authority. I'm
not even talking about gaining an advantage for the Turnpike authority,
Warrington said the impending opening of Interchange 15X has helped
renew interest in the commercial development. Over the years, Allied
Junction has struggled because its plans for Secaucus far exceeded its
Marc Joseph, the company's chief operating officer, said his firm is
nearing a deal with a high-profile national developer which would
pretty much take over the project.
"They bring two important things to the table -- a great deal of
experience and a great deal of money," said Joseph, declining to name
the other company because negotiations are ongoing.
In addition to the Allied Junction project, the New Jersey Meadowlands
Commission, the agency that oversees growth in that region, has
designated 231 acres nearby as Secaucus Transit Village, a project that
could include 1,850 housing units, a hotel and conference center,
restaurants and shops. No one knows when or if the parking and
commercial developments will be built. Until then, the new Turnpike
exit mainly will handle traffic heading to Secaucus' warehouse district.
Turnpike officials say about 15,000
vehicles a day will use the interchange, but traffic studies by
the highway's consultants give few
details to support the projection.
In fact, for the next year, drivers
headings into Secaucus from the new exit could run into traffic jams
because officials have yet to start a $33 million overpass designed to
avoid delays at a troublesome freight rail crossing.
"It's not going to be an overnight success," said Martin Robins,
director of Rutgers University's Alan M. Voorhees Transportation
Center. "But because of its advantageous location, with the rail
station and the easy access to Manhattan, it could turn out to be one
of the most important areas for new construction in New Jersey."
Joe Malinconico covers transportation. He may be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or at (973) 392-4230.