Turnpike scrambles to salvage a new exit

$250M project lacks a major destination

Monday, August 15, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

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 missing.

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. Richard Codey.

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 Junction.

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, just fair."

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 bankroll.

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 jmalinconico@starledger.com or at (973) 392-4230.