Turnpike plan would target bottleneck

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Hackensack Record

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 said Tuesday.

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 Tuesday.

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 increases.

"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 similar concerns.

"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 turnpike.

"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."

E-mail: sforza@northjersey.com