Turnpike shifts Route 92 cash

By: Joseph Harvie, Staff Writer   
South Brunswick Post, 12/01/2005

About $175 million of the $181.5 million set aside for the proposed Turnpike spur will be used instead to widen the Turnpike between Exit 6 and Exit 8A.

In a move that pleased environmental groups, local residents and township officials, the N.J. Turnpike Authority decided Tuesday to use most of the money set aside for construction of Route 92 to widen the N.J. Turnpike in central New Jersey.

It will take about $175 million of the $181.5 million set aside for the proposed N.J. Turnpike spur and use it for the widening project, said Joe Orlando, spokesman for the Turnpike Authority. The authority plans to add new lanes in both directions between Exit 6 and Exit 8A.

Mr. Orlando said the authority still plans to move forward with Route 92 — a proposed 6.7-mile toll road connecting Route 1 near Ridge Road to Exit 8A — once federal environmental permits are issued. He said there is still $6.5 million set aside for the project.

Mr. Orlando said the money is being shifted because the widening project was more urgent and Route 92 does not have an anticipated start date.

South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese said the decision to reallocate the money is a "huge" step toward getting the road off the books. The township and an organized group of residents have been fighting the road for more than 10 years.

"I can now take my 'No 92' buttons and file them away and temporarily not have to continue to put money aside to fight the legal battle to end this road," he said.

Mayor Peter Cantu of Plainsboro, which has endorsed the toll road, said he was not surprised.

"At this point in time it's obvious there was a need for funding for widening the southern part of the turnpike," he said. "They (opponents) may have been premature in their celebrations."

The Turnpike Authority has been working on Route 92 since 1991, when the state Legislature approved legislation transferring responsibility for the road from the state Department of Transportation. It approved an alignment in the mid-1990s, but has not received federal environmental approval. The state Department of Environmental Protection issued permits in 1998, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency balked sending the project to the federal Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps released a draft version of the EIS in April 2004.

The highway is officially opposed by South Brunswick, Franklin, Montgomery, Rocky Hill, Hillsborough and the Hopewells. Princeton Township, Princeton Borough, Plainsboro, Cranbury and West Windsor all are on record supporting its construction.

Assemblyman Bill Baroni, the 14th District Republican who represents both South Brunswick and Plainsboro, was pleased with the authority's decision. He and state Sen. Peter Inverso, R-14th, had called on acting Gov. Richard Codey to reallocate the money after Gov. Codey announced the widening plan in December 2004.

Mr. Baroni said Wednesday that moving the money will help save the wetlands and wooded areas that stood in the toll road's path.

"One of my biggest objectives when I took office was to stop Route 92," Mr. Baroni said. "I think this goes a long way to preserving the critical environmental areas in South Brunswick."

Sen. Inverso said Gov. Codey and the Turnpike Authority made the right decision putting the widening project before Route 92.

"There was never enough money to complete Route 92," he said. "With the cost of building it increasing and all the other issues surrounding it, the Turnpike certainly needs to look at that expansion."

Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-14th, said moving the cash will allow the N.J. Turnpike widening to take place at the same time that Pennsylvania Turnpike is being expanded. The Pennsylvania Turnpike is being extended to meet with N.J. Turnpike Exit 6 and is expected to be completed in 2011.

"It is going to be very important to keep on schedule with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and that is scheduled for the next couple of years," Ms. Greenstein said. "If we can get together, New Jersey and the Pennsylvania turnpikes will connect up and be able to solve a lot of problems with trucks on local roads."

Mayor Brian Levine of Franklin said he was worried about the impact Route 92 would have had on Kingston and said the reallocation is the closest thing to the end of the road.

"They left some money, which to me seems like in effect killing it," Mayor Levine said. "I'd hate to see state money sit idle somewhere and there is $6.5 million sitting idle that could be used in the budget or given back or actually put to use in some projects."

Route 92 opponent Cathy Dowgin of Friendship Road said that, at the very least, the shift of money pushes action on the road at least seven years into the future because new studies would have to be completed once the widening is completed.

"The good thing with the turnpike widening is that all the traffic studies done now are obsolete," Ms. Dowgin said. "They would have to start from scratch and would have to wait at least until 2013 when widening is completed and new studies are done."

Steve Masticola of Kingston, another vocal opponent of the road, said he was happy to see the money reallocated, though he does not believe the road has been killed.

"It's often been likened to Dracula," Mr. Masticola said. "I think this is another trip to the coffin."

Anne Zeman of Kingston, another opponent of Route 92, said Route 92 would have dumped too much traffic in Kingston. The reallocation also would help save the wetlands that stood in the road's path.

"We have all worked so hard for this sort of thing to happen and you don't win a lot of them," Ms. Zeman said. "We are so happy especially for Kingston. It was going to end at our doorstep and that EIS didn't take any of Kingston into account. We were delighted to hear about the money. It was quite a boondoggle."

Damien Newton, N.J. coordinator for the Tri-state Transportation Campaign, a group that supports transportation alternatives and believes money should go to fixing existing roads rather than building new roads, said his organization has opposed the road for years. He said it was a big win for proper planning.

"It is a victory for smart growth and a victory over sprawl," Mr. Newton said.

Mayor Gambatese credited the work of residents and government officials from both the Republican and Democratic parties in South Brunswick for their work opposing it.

"It was long overdue and shows the rest of the people in the state that when a township and the people have a common goal to resist projects that are unwanted, it can do so," he said. "But it has to do so with a real community effort behind it."

Packet Group reporter Emily Craighead contributed to this report.

©PACKETONLINE News Classifieds Entertainment Business - Princeton and Central New Jersey 2005