Thursday, December 02, 2004

 

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike...

Good for an acting governor to be looking 15 years ahead.
Turnpike expansion could top $1B

By TOM HESTER JR.

While the state may have to increase New Jersey Turnpike tolls to pay for acting Gov. Richard J. Codey's plan to widen the highway from Middlesex to Burlington counties, it remains to be seen how the massive project that should cost more than $1 billion will be funded.

Codey yesterday officially announced his plan to widen the Turnpike from congested Exit 8A in Monroe to Exit 6 in Mansfield, and although the project will be among the most expensive transportation projects ever undertaken in New Jersey, state officials said a financing plan hasn't been finalized. An 18-month study of how the project should proceed will help determine the financing.

"We're going to let the project drive the financing, and not let the financing drive the project," said Joe Fiordaliso, communications director for the state Transportation Department.

State officials haven't given a cost estimate for the project, but with the plan calling for widening the Turnpike on both sides for about 20 miles, with New Jersey averaging $2.5 million per mile in construction costs, according to federal statistics, the work should top $1 billion.

Fiordaliso said nothing has been decided, for instance, in regards to funding possibilities that could include increased Turnpike tolls, which Codey yesterday said was a possibility, although likely not for about five years. "There's no imminent toll increase," Fiordaliso said.

The 18-month study, which could begin early next year, will detail how the work should proceed, how much it might cost, how it should be paid for and how long it might take. The study will cost $8 million to $10 million, and Fiordaliso said it will be paid for with existing Turnpike money.

Codey, speaking before about 500 business leaders at a Chamber of Commerce summit meeting in Cherry Hill, referred to his recently announced plans to speed work meant to improve the tangled interchange between Interstates 295 and 76 and Route 42 in South Jersey. "But (Interstate) 295 is really just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Codey said New Jersey must ensure Pennsylvania's plans to link the Pennsylvania Turnpike with Interstate 95 in Bucks County doesn't create increased traffic congestion. That link, which will take nearly 15 years to complete, involves widening the Pennsylvania Turnpike and building a second bridge over the Delaware River, from Bristol to Burlington townships, to link the Pennsylvania and New Jersey turnpikes at Exit 6.

Officials expect connecting the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-95 will lead to increased traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, and Codey said doing nothing will lead to "virtual gridlock" on the New Jersey Turnpike. "It is among the worst traffic spots in our state," Codey said of the area around Exit 8A. The construction will take time, he said. "But it is a priority and it will get done," Codey said, without estimating a time line.

Exit 8A is where the Turnpike's two truck lanes and three car lanes narrow into a single three-lane highway. The merge often causes severe congestion, sometimes resulting in jams of up to 10 miles. State officials said about 120,000 drivers pass through that area per day.

Codey's plan calls for extending the separate car and truck lanes for about 20 more miles, from where they end near Exit 8A in Middlesex County, through Mercer County to Exit 6 in Burlington County.

While Turnpike engineers have deemed the area around Exit 8A and 8 as experiencing failed traffic conditions, they predict failure conditions will extend to Exit 6 by 2011 if nothing is done.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a watchdog organization, urged New Jerseyans to be cautious about the plan. "While we clearly recognize the bottleneck created by the end of the truck lanes between Exits 8A and 8, and the projections for huge increases in truck traffic in the Garden State over the next two decades, the Turnpike needs to make its case that highway expansion is needed for the entire stretch of the highway south to Exit 6," the Campaign said in a statement.

Diane Brake, executive director of the Regional Planning Partnership, which promotes better land use planning and regional cooperation among Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties, said Turnpike work is "clearly needed."

"The Turnpike is our interstate, international corridor, part of the whole thing that makes New Jersey the corridor state," Brake said.

The work may be expensive, she said, but such improvements are important because the state's transportation infrastructure is a vital cog in the state's economy. "If that's a significant portion of our economy, we have to make sure we invest in it," Brake said.

Codey made the announcement at a "State of the Region" seminar organized by the Greater Philadelphia Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is trying to promote an 11-county region that includes Mercer and Burlington counties in New Jersey and Bucks County in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who attended along with Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, praised Codey's plans, which he said shows the acting governor "understands the importance of transportation in the region."

Opponents of Route 92, a proposed Turnpike spur that would run from Route 1 in South Brunswick to Exit 8A, are hoping the state diverts the $400 million designated for that project to the Turnpike widening. While state officials have said that isn't the plan, Codey has said Route 92 isn't a priority.
I'm very much in favor of this, or at least in favor of doing something to improve traffic on the NJTP. I don't have to drive through 8A often (that's where I usually get on and off the Turnpike on those infrequent occasions I have to use it). And there are other, almost equally bad sections that need work (the on- and off-ramps at Exit 12, for example). But going from 6 to 3 lanes on the southbound side at Exit 8A is a severe constriction. It isn't even the lack of truck lanes; you're funnelling so much traffic into a narrower space - of course you're going to get jams! Something has to be done, and New Jersey is too suburbanized for mass transit.

Not to mention the fact that the Turnpike is the major artery for nationwide north-south travel on the East Coast. This is something the federal government should be happy to pay for - except, darn it, that we done gone spent all the money in Iraq and on taxcuts. Pity, that.
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