Permits to be sought for road linking Turnpike in S. Brunswick

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

BY SUE EPSTEIN Star-Ledger Staff

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority plans to reapply to the state for the environmental permits needed to fill nearly 15 acres of wetlands to build Route 92, a controversial $300 million connector road between Route 1 and the Turnpike in South Brunswick.

Over the objections of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection granted the necessary permits for the project in March 1999, but those permits expired yesterday.

In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, Michael Lapolla, executive director of the Turnpike Authority, said the authority plans to reapply to the DEP for a permit to fill in freshwater wetlands, a water quality certificate and a stream encroachment permit.

In the letter, dated March 18 to Richard Tomer, chief of the regulatory branch of the corps' New York region, Lapolla discussed what the agency would need to do to reapply for the permit, including a re-evaluation of the project's storm-water management system to assure it is in full compliance with new state regulations.

Construction never began because the turnpike authority did not receive the necessary federal permits.

Since the EPA and DEP split on whether to grant the permits, the decision fell to the Army Corps, which in 2000 ordered an environmental study.

The study, which is being supervised by the corps, was expected to take about two years, but has dragged on for four. Once the study is released, which is expected by late spring, the corps will schedule public hearings on it.

Lapolla told Tomer he did not believe the re-evaluation of the storm- water system for the project should hold up the release of the environmental impact study, but could be done at the same time to save time and money.

"Considering the significant commitment of time, effort and funds that our agencies have expended to date, the authority believes that proceeding in this manner best serves the public interest, as well as serving our mutual objectives," Lapolla wrote.

Bradley Campbell, the state environmental commissioner, would have to decide whether to reissue the permits for the project, but the commissioner said last month he would not make a decision until the Army corps completes the environmental impact study.

The 6.7-mile toll road would connect Interchange 8A of the Turnpike with Route 1 at Ridge Road, traversing farmland, wooded areas and wetlands. There would be exits at each end and one at Route 130.

The EPA opposed the project because it would destroy wetlands. The agency concluded that there were other, less environmentally damaging, alternatives.

The idea to build an east-west road that connects Route 1, the Turnpike, Route 27 and Route 206 through southern Middlesex, northern Mercer and southeastern Somerset counties has been around for more than 40 years, but was just the object of studies until 1992 when the Legislature gave the road to the Turnpike Authority, hoping to get it built.

The original alignment, unveiled in 1994, would have taken the road through northern Plainsboro and Princeton, but opposition from residents and officials in those towns led the Turnpike Authority to reroute the road north through South Brunswick, which created a furor with that town's officials and residents.

Supporters argue the highway is needed to divert trucks from local roads and provide a safe east- west route for truck traffic, which has increased with the construction of nearby industrial parks and warehouses.

Opponents say the project will not lessen traffic on local roads, but will destroy local farms and open space and endanger the historic village of Kingston, which is near the road's western terminus.

The Turnpike Authority dedicated $300 million of the money it raised in its toll increase in 2000 to fund construction of the project. The money is now in a special authority projects fund.

Sue Epstein covers Middlesex County. She can be reached at sep or (732) 404-8085.