Turnpike plan would target bottleneck
Wednesday, December 1, 2004
By DANIEL SFORZA
A billion-dollar plan that would add
at least one lane in each direction to the New Jersey Turnpike between
Exits 8A and 6 will be announced today by Governor Codey, officials
A toll increase to fund the project is
not currently planned, officials said, a claim that some observers
greeted with skepticism.
The project is intended to relieve the bottleneck where the truck lanes
merge with the car-only lanes near Exit 8A in South Brunswick. The
massive construction project, which some
officials said could cost as much as $1.3 billion, is expected
to be completed by 2012 or 2013.
"It's been talked about for years," Turnpike Authority Chairman Joseph
Simunovich said. "The sense that we have gotten, and the governor
shares this view, is the time to move on this project is now."
Officials from Codey's office did not return calls seeking comment
Turnpike officials have said the project is necessary because the
roadway has reached its capacity at the merge, handling 120,000
vehicles daily. A study by Wilbur Smith Associates in 2003 said traffic
levels were at "failure rate."
And officials think it will get worse after 2011, when Pennsylvania
completes a link between its turnpike and Interstate 95 in Bucks
County. That is expected to channel more traffic onto the turnpike at
Exit 6, which connects to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The expansion project would cover 21 miles of highway and expand three
lanes to four in each direction. However, it is possible that the
highway could be expanded to five lanes in each direction, one
transportation official said.
The first step in the project would be to spend $10 million to fund an
18-month study on environmental factors, costs and different approaches
to expanding the highway.
The Turnpike Authority could approve the study as early as this month,
the transportation official said. Simunovich, however, said approval is
likely to come in February.
"Once we set up a strategic plan, at that point we would have a better
understanding of what we have to do and how much it's going to cost to
do and when we can expect completion," Simunovich said.
The study initially would look at building an extra lane in each
direction. But it also would look at punching out bridge abutments at
the interchanges to allow for adding more lanes in the future, the
transportation official said.
The study also would examine continuing two truck lanes as a separate
roadway rather than adding a single lane and continuing with a merge at
8A, the official said. Other options to be explored include widening
the interchanges and their associated ramps before widening the road -
essentially staging the project to minimize its effect on drivers.
"Frankly, they should widen it all the
way down to Exit 4 in Philadelphia," said turnpike driver Robert
Soudant of Cresskill. "It's not the
Boston Big Dig. It's a legitimate requirement."
While Soudant thought the widening was a good idea, he had his doubts
about the government's contention the project won't be funded with toll
"They are going to do a toll hike, and
they are going to need an excuse," he said. "This will give them their reason."
Jeffrey Zupan, a senior transportation fellow with the Regional Plan
Association, also questioned the no-toll-hike claim.
"They're going to increase the tolls,"
he said. "The question is:
Where does the $1.3 billion come from and is there a better
purpose for it? If they were raising that much toll money and they
weren't spending it on this, what else might they spend it on?"
Jon Orcut, spokesman for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, voiced
"We need to figure out where the money
is coming from," he said. "The
state doesn't have a lot of transportation money around now."
Simunovich said all sources of funding
to pay for the project will be investigated.
"At this time, there has been no discussion of [a toll increase]," he
said. "We want to examine every
single resource that is available to us, not only in terms of bonding, but if there are any type
of shared matching funds available to us."
In 2003, 241 million vehicles traveled the turnpike, bringing the
Turnpike Authority more than $500 million in revenue. The agency carries $4.6 billion in debt.
One official said a toll increase was
among the likely scenarios, but one that is years away.
"It seems like there is an inevitable toll hike that will have to come
to pay for this big-ticket item," said Steve Carrellas, president of
the New Jersey branch of the National Motorists Association. "An
expansion project of this magnitude is very tangible to people. They
know what they are getting for that potential cost."
The project signals a change in
priorities for the state, and
may also mean that the six-mile Route 92 connector between the turnpike
and Route 1 in Middlesex County won't be built soon. That $450 million
project, for which the Turnpike Authority has set aside $244 million,
is not deemed as critical as widening the turnpike, Simunovich said.
However, he added, Route 92 is not
off the table and continues to be reviewed by the Army Corps of
Engineers over its potential impact on wetlands.
"Work will continue on the Route 92
project," Simunovich said. "We will continue to pursue the approval of
the Army Corps of Engineers. That's a huge hurdle."
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said it is imperative that funding be diverted
from Route 92 - a project he said was designed only to advance suburban
sprawl - to the turnpike project.
"They don't have the money for both," he
said. "If they don't stop Route 92,
then we would fight the turnpike expansion."
State Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, the minority leader, said he
wants to review any loans taken out to pay for the project.
"I would want to know what is the
funding mechanism," he said "I
would like to analyze the financing proposal to expand any part of the
"When we borrow inappropriately, as we have for the state budget ...
that has an indirect impact on other issuance of New Jersey bonds,
including turnpike bonds, he said. "That is yet another reason why we
shouldn't borrow inappropriately."