Wetlands permit expires for Route 92

By: David Campbell , Staff Writer
Princeton Packet, 04/02/2004

Turnpike Authority says it will submit new application to DEP.

A disputed state wetlands permit for the long-delayed Route 92 expired Monday, but a spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority said the agency does not consider it a setback for its proposed roadway.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group opposed to the project, seized on the passed deadline this week to again condemn the highway as a magnet for unwanted sprawl and traffic congestion, and a hazard to the environment.

"Our basic message is that, as the permit is expired, it's no longer an inherited project from a previous administration," said Tri-State spokesman Tyler Burke. "It would take a conscious effort by Gov. McGreevey to move this project forward. His commitment to his own anti-sprawl policy will be tested by his reaction to the Route 92 permit expiring."

But Turnpike Authority spokesman Joe Orlando said Wednesday the authority does not consider it a setback for Route 92.

"Not at all," the spokesman said.

The authority plans to reapply once it revises its proposal to comply with new stormwater regulations implemented recently by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Mr. Orlando said.

Route 92 has long been proposed by the Turnpike Authority to connect the New Jersey Turnpike at Interchange 8A to Route 1 near Ridge Road in South Brunswick. The 6.7-mile, limited-access roadway would be built and managed by the Turnpike Authority.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working on an environmental impact statement for the roadway since 2000 because federal and state environmental agencies disagreed over whether to issue permits for the filling of wetlands required by the project.

Conflict initially arose in 1999 after the DEP issued a permit, valid for five years under the Clean Water Act, contrary to recommendations from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Review by the Army Corps was undertaken to help resolve the matter.

DEP spokeswoman Mary Helen Cervantes said the Turnpike Authority will have to reapply for any permits needed to proceed with construction.

Ms. Cervantes said DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell will not make a final determination on whether to issue a new permit until he has had a chance to review the Army Corps EIS.

However, the spokeswoman said that the DEP will begin to process permit applications if it receives them prior to the Army Corps finalizing its EIS. Also, comments from the public must be accepted in accordance with regulations. Given that the comments are expected to be substantial, Ms. Cervantes said, a public hearing is likely.

Richard Tomer, who heads the Army Corps' regulatory branch in New York, said the corps expects to release its draft EIS around late April.

Mr. Tomer said work on the document will continue, but said it cannot give the roadway project the go-ahead until the state issues its permit.

However, he said he did not consider the most recent permitting development a setback, noting that typically state permits are not sought until late in the process anyway.

Montgomery Township Mayor Louise Wilson, whose community opposes Route 92, said obtaining another permit could be "a heavy lift" for the Turnpike Authority given the extensive territory the proposed road would traverse and the wetlands that could be affected.

The Montgomery mayor said she would consider it a good thing if it proved to be the Achilles heel that spells the project's demise.

"I don't think that building a new highway adding that much capacity is in everybody's interest, especially with the state's emphasis now on fix-it-first and adapting the infrastructure we already have," Mayor Wilson said.

West Windsor Township Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, whose community is among several in the region that support Route 92, said the permit should be renewed if the project originally approved by DEP remains unchanged.

"The state already issued permits before," Mayor Hsueh said. "I don't see why, as long as no additional wetlands are impacted, it cannot be extended."

The West Windsor mayor said Route 92 will benefit the region by providing a needed east-west connection between the Turnpike and Route 1.

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