Turnpike connector plan passes an expiration date

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Staff Writer
Trenton Times

The long-proposed, much-disputed Route 92 lost a lifeline, but it's still breathing.

The state wetlands permit for Route 92 expired Monday, but the New Jersey Turnpike Authority said it plans to reapply for the permit once it complies with new stormwater runoff regulations.

Under the current proposal, the 6.7-mile Route 92 would link Turnpike Exit 8A in Monroe to Route 1 in South Brunswick, costing about $400 million to build.

The permit, valid for five years, was issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection in 1999.

"The Turnpike Authority will have to reapply for any permits needed to proceed with construction," DEP spokesman Mary Helen Cervantes said yesterday.

Turnpike spokesman Joe Orlando said that will happen.

"We will be filing for the new permits," Orlando said yesterday.

The Turnpike will reapply once it revises its plan to comply with new stormwater runoff regulations implemented earlier this year, he said. Orlando said he didn't know when the Turnpike would reapply.

The Army Corps of Engineers is devising a draft environmental impact statement on the project. The statement will be used in the decision on whether to issue federal approvals for the work.

Richard Tomer, chief of the corps' regulatory branch in New York, said he expects the draft report to be released "in the latter half of April." Tomer said the corps would continue its work, but, "We could not issue a permit for the work without the state issuing their permit."

Cervantes said DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell will wait until the Army Corps releases its report and he reviews it before deciding whether to reissue the permit.

The DEP granted the permit for Route 92 under Gov. Christie Whitman. Then-DEP Commissioner Robert Shinn issued it after the Turnpike changed the highway's design to reduce its effect on wetlands. He also said the road would ease congestion on other highways and help improve air quality.

The highway would cut acrossSouth Brunswick from Ridge Road, destroying 14 acres of wetlands. The Turnpike has said it would create 57 acres of wetlands next to the road and preserve an additional 250 acres.

Route 92 supporters contend it would alleviate traffic congestion and spur economic development. Opponents argue it would destroy the environment and flood Route 1 and its connecting roads with more vehicles.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a watchdog group opposed to Route 92, plans a news conference today in South Brunswick with area mayors to "celebrate" the permit expiration.

Tyler Burke, a spokesman for the organization, said Gov. James E. McGreevey's oft-stated commitment to controlling development will be tested should the Turnpike reapply for the permit.

In 1988, the state Transportation Department proposed constructing Route 92 from Turnpike Exit 8 to Route 206 in the Princeton area, but four years later the Legislature gave the project to the Turnpike. The plan then called for running Route 92 from Exit 8A to Route 1 in South Brunswick, with an interchange at Route 130.

In 1998, the federal Environmental Protection Agency rejected Route 92, but the DEP approved the permits the next year and the project was sent to the Army Corps to help resolve the dispute.