A Road Paved With Good Intentions

New York Times, Dec. 21, 2003


WHEN they received their invitations to have breakfast with Governor McGreevey last October, Laura Lynch and other environmentalists thought it was going to be a great meeting: they would sit down with the governor at his mansion in Princeton, hash out some issues and listen to a pep talk from the man they had helped to elect.

But that is not how the gathering unfolded.

One minute, everyone was sitting around the long dining room table at Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion, politely spooning their scrambled eggs and drinking coffee. The next, the governor's aides were chatting about the benefits of building a major east-west highway in central New Jersey. The muted clink of silverware on fine china was replaced with the sound of 40 jaws dropping.

"We were all going, 'What the heck does this mean,"' said Ms. Lynch, a biologist who serves as conservation chairwoman for the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.

What it means is that the state may finally fill a major gap in its highway system. While that may be good news for drivers who now spend an inordinate amount of time stopping, starting and muttering on the Turnpike or Route One, and for businesses that need to entice customers and make it easier for employees to come and go, it is bad news for environmentalists and small towns situated in the path of the proposed highway.

The governor was talking about Route 92 -- one of the most delayed highway projects in state history -- which has been argued over for more than 20 years. Shifted, altered, lengthened and shortened, the proposal has been rejected once by the Environmental Protection Agency and shelved by three governors. Originally designed to link the northwestern part of the state with the Jersey Shore, the road has been scaled back to its current incarnation as a 6.5-mile connection between Route 1 and the New Jersey Turnpike.

Once purely a state highway, the project has been shifted to the jurisdiction of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. If the
authority receives state approval, it will build the road as a spur of the Turnpike. The estimated cost of the project is about $400 million, money that Turnpike officials say is already set aside.

So far, the governor has not committed himself to the project, and senior aides say the idea is only being explored at this point.

Bradley M. Campbell, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, says traffic has become so bad in central New Jersey that it presents an environmental hazard all its own and that doing nothing is not an acceptable solution.

"There is a consensus that the transportation challenges do need to be addressed," Mr. Campbell said. As to whether Route 92 was the answer, he said, "I certainly think there are versions of the project that might make sense from the smart-growth, congestion-easing perspective."

Yet for many environmentalists, even the 6.5-mile version -- scaled back from more than 25 miles -- is troubling: a wide swath of blacktop across pristine woods and farmland that would inflict thousands of cars a day on such small towns as Kingston and South Brunswick.

"This is a bad road," said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "A bad, bad road."

In fact, until they met with the governor, many environmental groups assumed that the road was dead. After all, the final decision rests with Governor McGreevey, a man who has vowed to protect the environment and control suburban sprawl. When the governor raised the possibility that Route 92 might be revived, Ms. Lynch said, it was hard to believe.

"Stunned silence is probably the best way to put it," Ms. Lynch said. "Stunned silence."

'You Are Trapped'

While the governor's guests were sitting down to breakfast, Phillip Benjamin, 45, of Westchester County, N.Y., a controller for the Patrinely Group, was probably crawling through the last few miles of his commute amid the tract houses and condominium developments of Plainsboro.

Like most commutes, Mr. Benjamin's trek to his office on Scudders Mill Road has settled into a routine -- with one particular spot that he has come to dread. For Mr. Benjamin, it is a long, sweeping turn where Dey Road curves through farmland and straightens toward Scudders Mill Road. He has learned to watch for the glaring tail lights that mean, once again, traffic has congealed into a mile-long parking lot.

"You are trapped," said Mr. Benjamin, who has been doing this for almost four years. "There is no place to go."

Like thousands of fellow commuters Mr. Benjamin faces the impossibility of navigating roads originally designed to serve
small towns and farms. It is a problem common in many parts of the state, but particularly in central New Jersey, which has seen thousands of acres of farmland sprout houses, strip malls and office complexes over the last two decades.

"It is an intractable problem," said Jeffrey M. Zupan, a senior fellow with Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit organization based in Manhattan. "Rapidly growing, low-density suburbs where, with the exception of rail lines into the city, mass transit has not been able to function very well."

The area where Route 92 is planned is one of the fastest-growing sections of the state, according to Tim Evans, research director for the planning group New Jersey Future. For example, Mr. Evans said, the population of Plainsboro grew 43 percent in the 1990's, and South Brunswick grew 47 percent. In terms of jobs, the numbers are even more startling. Three towns -- Cranbury, South Brunswick and West Windsor -- were among the top 10 municipalities in job growth statewide from 1990 to 1999, with Cranbury growing by 91 percent and West Windsor, 63 percent. In Plainsboro, where 20,215 residents live today, the population was only 5,605 in 1980.

Like many fast-growing regions, central New Jersey is stuck in a cycle of sprawl, Mr. Zupan said. People looking for more space and cheaper housing push developers to turn farms into subdivisions. More homeowners means bigger schools, more police, more road repairs. To pay for it all, mayors try to lure commercial development like offices and malls. The high-tax, low-service commercial properties are great for the town budget, but they produce heavy traffic as workers come and go.

"You get a lot of single-family office buildings," Mr. Zupan joked.

Adding to the problem is the fact that the state never really planned for all this development. There are several major highways that slice through the area from north to south -- the Turnpike, Route 1 and Route 206 -- but no good way to move between them.

"The infrastructure in the area is inadequate," said Martin E. Robins, director of Rutgers University's Voorhees Transportation Policy Institute. "Residential people are trying to get out of the area every morning and people from the office parks are trying to get in."

Specifically, state planners estimate that each weekday about 20,000 cars and 2,100 trucks squeeze onto the two-lane local roads that connect Route 1 and the New Jersey Turnpike in southern Middlesex County, clogging intersections and turning every commute into test of wills.

The mayor of Plainsboro, Peter Cantu, said there is not much towns can do to solve the problem, since widening streets would make little difference.

"Sixty percent of the traffic that comes through Plainsboro has neither a destination nor an origin in Plainsboro," Mayor Cantu said. "Changing the local roadways is not a feasible solution."

Mr. Cantu, who has been mayor of Plainsboro for 23 years, has spent much of that time arguing that the state needs to build a highway to connect the major roads that run through Middlesex County.

"This is a regional problem, not just a problem for Plainsboro," he said.

Business owners in the area also contend that the problem is an economic one. For one thing, employees who have to fight traffic on the way tend to arrive at work frazzled. Truckers find it increasingly difficult to make deliveries on time.

David H. Knights, director of marketing for Princeton University's Forrestal Center Associates, said companies ranging from Dow Jones to Bristol Myers and Merrill Lynch have to rely on local roads to move their workforce.

"There is a shortage of east-west movement in this entire section of New Jersey," Mr. Knights said. "The infrastructure just has not kept pace."

The Forrestal center, situated on Route 1 just east of Princeton, is one of the largest commercial developments in the area, with dozens of companies that together employ about 12,000 workers. And Mr. Knights said his company planned to expand the complex, meaning more people on the roads.

Without a new highway, he said, those commuters would face even worse traffic that stymies people like Mr. Benjamin.

"There is no good way to go east to west," Mr. Benjamin said. "It is frustrating."

Offices Amid Farmland

About half a mile north of Plainsboro, Mayor Frank T. Gambatese of South Brunswick walked down a road that could have run through a national forest. Birds twittered in trees that dotted the marshy bottom land; a sign nailed to one trunk warned that hunting was only allowed with permission from the Buck Master Bow and Gun Club.

It is an odd feature of central New Jersey -- modern office buildings and roads often close by pockets of woods and farmland that look much like they did 75 years ago. Pausing by a shuttered barn, Mayor Gambatese gestured across a field covered with the stumps of this year's corn crop.

"We pump four million gallons of water each day from the aquifer under this land," he said. "It's a sandy soil. The water zips right down into the aquifer."

He pointed to a tree line across the field. "That's where the highway will go," he said.

Mayor Cantu's problem could soon become Mayor Gambatese's headache. The current plan for Route 92 would send the highway across the fields of South Brunswick. It would slice through farmland that the town and the state recently paid $2.5 million to preserve as open space, skirt the edge of a town park and run over the top of the aquifer. It would also send highway traffic zooming by a quiet neighborhood in South Brunswick and dump the cars into the narrow streets of the village of Kingston.

Mayor Gambatese is unhappy. He thinks South Brunswick and neighboring towns are inheriting traffic problems that they did not create, and that the state is ignoring the concerns of small towns in an effort to solve a regional transportation problem.

"Almost all the towns around us have gone on record opposing this road," he said. "These are the towns that are going to get the brunt of this traffic."

To make matters worse, South Brunswick just spent $20 million to upgrade Route 522, a four-lane county road that connects with Route 1 and runs about a half-mile north of Exit 8A on the Turnpike. Mr. Gambatese has urged that the state do more to encourage drivers to use that road, though state engineers say it is too far north to be of much use to commuters.

Yet Mr. Gambatese, a Democrat, also tempers his anger, saying that he understands the pressures Governor McGreevey is facing: business owners and drivers demand better roads and unions want the construction jobs. But he questioned the need to spend $400 million on a highway that local residents do not want when there seems to be so many other roads that are crumbling.

"All we hear about is the state is not in a good financial position," he said. "Sometimes we have to look at these things and say this is not a good use of our money."

South Brunswick residents -- tossing political considerations aside -- are less charitable. They say the state is betraying them by proposing to build a highway that would benefit office park developers along Route 1. Particularly galling to them is the fact that South Brunswick will reap little of the tax benefits from new development, but will bear most of the burden from new traffic.

"It is environmentally damaging and a colossal waste of the state's money," said Steve Masticola, a computer scientist who
lives in Kingston. "It is being driven by communities that want other people to be a bypass for them."

A Question of Tradeoffs

Mr. Campbell, an ardent environmentalist, finds himself in an uncomfortable position. As commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, he will have to make a crucial decision on whether to move forward with the project, which will almost certainly cause some degree of damage to the area.

"It presents a tough set of environmental and smart-growth tradeoffs," he said.

In an interview last week, Mr. Campbell said the state had not decided whether to move ahead, though it was clear he felt
something had to be done to alleviate the traffic problem in Middlesex County.

"There are benefits in terms of reduced congestion, reduced emissions associated with congestion, and convenience to motorists," he said. "That will have to be balanced against some wetlands impacts, and a close scrutiny of how it will effect development."

Other regulators are divided on the road's potential effect. The federal Environmental Protection Agency turned down an earlier version of the highway, citing potential damage to the wetlands that lie over South Brunswick's aquifer. But the Army Corps of Engineers, which has recently completed an assessment of the project for the Turnpike Authority, recommended that the state go ahead with construction, Mr. Campbell said. According to data collected by the Corps and made public by Mr. Campbell, Route 92 would decrease traffic on local roads by as much as 40 percent for cars and 70 percent for trucks over the next 25 years.

While the federal environmental agency normally has jurisdiction over such issues, New Jersey is one of two states that manages its own environmental program. According to the Turnpike Authority, which would build the road if it is approved by the governor, state environmental regulators have the final say.

For his part, Mr. Campbell said he was concerned about development that inevitably follow the building any new road,
though he said the state could take steps to limit subsequent construction near Route 92.

"It will depend on how the road is designed, particularly the number of interchanges," he said. "If it is truly a limited
access road, I think you could accomplish the benefits in terms of congestion and reduced emissions without inducing secondary development."

Not surprisingly, environmentalists in the state disagree with the assessment of the Army Corps. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the data overestimates the benefits. And, Mr. Tittel, with Route 1 nearly
impassible now, additional cars diverted from the Turnpike, would make the situation worse.

"It is a joke," Mr. Tittel said. "They are trying to develop enough political cover to present it as a smart-growth road."

The idea is also drawing fire from transportation and planning groups. Governor McGreevey recently rejected a proposed increase in the state gasoline tax, which means that the state will probably be short of funds for highway repairs for the next several years. In light of that, said Barbara Lawrence, director of the planning group New Jersey Future, the state should not be spending money for a new highway.

"The rest of the transportation system is falling apart," Ms. Lawrence said. "I can't imagine how this could be justified."

But Mr. Campbell said most of the money had been set aside by the Turnpike Authority, which for years has dedicated a fraction of its toll revenue for the project.

In any event event, he said, the project still had to undergo an extensive public review, including hearings, before a final decision was made. "This is an example of tough tradeoffs," he said. "Benefits of the project need to be weighed against the environmental and community impacts."

For theirt part, environmental groups say they will be at every hearing.

"This road is a symbol," said Mr. Tittel. "It is a test for the McGreevey administration and its commitment to fighting sprawl."


GRAPHIC: Photos: Miller Road in South Brunswick, above, cuts across property owned by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. If the authority receives state approval, it will build a major new highway, Route 92, as a spur of the Turnpike. But Mayor Frank Gambatese of South Brunswick says the highway, whose cost has been estimated at $400 million, will slice through farmland and create more headaches than it will alleviate. (Photographs by
Frank C. Dougherty for The New York Times The New York Times)(pg. 12); "If the state is in such dire straits that we have to raise the gas tax, why are they spending $400 million on this road?" says Cathy Dowgin, left, whose house sits across from the proposed path of Route 92 in South Brunswick. A truck rolls along Route 1, above, where the proposed highway will end. (Photographs by Frank C. Dougherty, above, and Timothy Ivy, below for The New York Times The New York Times)(pg. 1)

Map of New Jersey highlights the proposed Route 92