Sunday, February 01, 2004BY SUE EPSTEIN
A state permit issued to the New Jersey Turnpike to fill in nearly 15 acres of wetlands to build Route 92, a controversial $300 million connector road between Route 1 and the Turnpike in South Brunswick, expires next month.
Bradley Campbell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the permit issued by former Commissioner Robert Shinn in March 1999 was "a five-year permit" and would have to be reissued if the project is to go forward.
Campbell said he would not make a decision about reissuing the permit until the Army Corps of Engineers completes its environmental-impact study on the project. The report was due last year, but it was held up until the state could review the preliminary findings and provide a written comment on them.
"It is premature in the public process (of this study) for us to endorse one alternative or another," the commissioner said, adding the document he reviewed is "a preliminary draft."
Koko Cronin, the project manager on the study for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the corps received the state's comments on Dec. 18 and "we are reviewing them to determine what our next step is."
She said the corps has not scheduled a date yet to release the draft study, but Campbell said he hopes it will be this spring, "sometime in March or April." At the time of its release, a public hearing will also be scheduled, Cronin said.
Gov. James E. McGreevey is also awaiting the study's findings before throwing his support behind the project.
"Anyone who has driven on Route 1 in that area knows that the congestion problems are horrible, and we need to fix them," McGreevey spokesman Micah Rasmussen said. "What's happening now is that we're waiting for the study to help us decide how to fix them."
The 6.7-mile toll road would connect Interchange 8A of the Turnpike with Route 1 at Ridge Road, traversing through farmland, wooded areas and wetlands.
There would be exits at each end, and one at Route 130.
The Army corps ordered the Turnpike Authority in 2000 to perform the environmental study after the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the DEP split on whether to grant the permits. The study, which is being coordinated by the corps, was expected to take about two years, but has dragged on for four.
The EPA opposed the project because it would destroy the wetlands. The federal agency concluded that there were other, less environmentally damaging, alternatives.
The DEP granted the state permit, but without the federal one, the project can't be built.
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 and has been studied by more than a dozen agencies and consultants.
In 1992, the Legislature gave the project to the Turnpike Authority, hoping to get it into the hands of construction workers.
Instead, the project has become bogged down in the permit process.
The various alignment changes made to appease one town or another have also added delay.
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 forced the Turnpike Authority to reroute the road north through South Brunswick, which created a furor with that town's officials and residents.
Supporters, including the Middlesex County freeholders and Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu, argue the road is needed to divert trucks from local roads and provide a safe east-west route for all of the truck traffic that has increased with construction of all of the nearby industrial parks and warehouses.
Opponents say the road will not lessen traffic on local roads, only destroy local farms and open space and endanger the historic village of Kingston, which is near the road's terminus.
"Every study done in recent years has just shown more and more that we need the road," Cantu said. "But we're respectful of the process, and we know the Army corps had to look at every alternative. I feel after they do, they'll recommend the one that we have been pushing as the best one."
Janine Bauer, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group that has opposed the road, said she believes the corps will eventually recommend issuing the permit.
"They have rarely seen a transportation project they didn't like," Bauer said. "We're looking for word on the updated traffic numbers. We believe this road will worsen the congestion on Route 1, where it terminates south of Ridge Road. Route 92 flies in the face of the governor's anti-sprawl approach. I just hope we can find a "Smart Growth" alternative to this project."
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 remains unspent in a special authority projects fund.
Sue Epstein covers Middlesex County. She can be reached at email@example.com or (732) 404-8085.