VIDEO: New Jersey Wants a Nearly $11B Turnpike Widening From Newark to Jersey City
Thu October 12, 2023 - Northeast Edition #23 NorthJersey.com
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority (NJTA) wants to proceed with part of a massive and controversial highway widening project in Hudson County that it said will reduce congestion, improve safety and support growth expected in the region.
"The extension provides needed access to local communities, the ports and marine terminals, and Newark [Liberty International] Airport, as well as services, recreation and entertainment in Bayonne, Jersey City and Newark," Lisa Navarro, NJTA's supervising engineer on the project, said Oct. 11.
She was among the experts who spoke to reporters during a briefing to discuss the project's 274-page draft environmental report and hundreds of related documents, exhibits and appendices, according to NorthJersey.com.
The proposal has been a flashpoint for environmentalists and some local officials who are fervently against the project, arguing it will increase pollution and congestion and that money could be better used to improve public transportation in the area.
Proposal Would Be Agency's Largest Project Ever
The proposed work would take place on an 8.1-mi. portion of the Turnpike between Newark, Jersey City and Bayonne to expand certain parts of the elevated highway and replace 29 bridges at an estimated cost of $10.7 billion, paid for through bonds paid back by tolls.
This would be the biggest project NJTA has ever taken on, NorthJersey.com reported, and more than double original estimates of about $4.7 billion, a drastic increase that officials have blamed on inflation, the cost of borrowing and the use of an old cost estimator.
"The Turnpike Authority has the right priority and is moving quickly on the most important part of this project," said Greg Lalevee, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825. "Replacing these decrepit bridges that are a vital freight and commuter lifeline has always been the first step of the expansion."
However, John Reichman, with the nonprofit EmpowerNJ, is opposed to the project, and called on NJTA officials to consider alternatives, like rehabilitating the existing structure and putting the money toward public transportation projects, such as extending the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line into Bergen County.
"The findings fly in the face of their own internal documents that show the bridge can be safely maintained and have an additional 40-year lifespan for approximately 1/30th of the cost of replacing," Reichman said, referencing a 2020 report published by Jacobs Engineering, which found rehabilitating the bridge would cost around $260 million.
However, the authors of that report recommend replacement instead of rehabilitation in order to increase the weight the roadway can handle.
Among other criticisms of the project is that the highway widening will not address congestion near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, where eastbound lanes merge down to just two.
Turnpike officials, though, said that they found only 21 percent of eastbound traffic goes to the tunnel, while 56 percent heads to Jersey City, and another 17 percent to Bayonne.
Project's Finish Will Not Happen Any Time Soon
The turnpike widening work is planned to be broken up into phases, NorthJersey.com learned. The first, which is considered the biggest priority and estimated to cost $6.2 billion, is 4.1 mi. of elevated highway between Interchanges 14 and 14A, which will involve replacing ramps and 15 bridges, including the Newark Bay Bridge.
Construction on the initial phase is expected to begin in 2026 and end around 2036. The full program is expected to be completed around 2040.
"Because of the age of the 29 bridges that comprise the extension, they cannot handle the current weight of the trucks," Navarro told reporters. "Additionally, the bridges and roadway are at capacity.
"During the past five years there has not been a single month without a lane or shoulder closing due to maintenance activity," she noted, adding that the Newark Bay Bridge was closed in 2017 for 36 hours for emergency repair work.
The bridge is currently made up of a single structure with two lanes in each direction. The NJTA is proposing to construct a new four-lane span, transfer traffic onto it, then demolish the old bridge before building a second four-lane structure to create two side-by-side spans.
This will allow an estimated 7,200 to 8,000 vehicles to travel in one direction per hour, according to the agency. One alternative studied would have widened the highway to three lanes in one direction, but it would not have met traffic demands past 2050.
The NJTA predicts it will still be under capacity at that time with four lanes in each direction.
NJTA Reports Emissions to Remain at Minimal Federal Thresholds
Here are some of the NJTA findings in the report:
There would be no residential displacement because of the project, though Navarro said they "might have to take a little bit of land at the edge of a property," which will be discussed with property owners in the next phase of final design.
The former Marist High School in Bayonne is the only property the NJTA expects to acquire in full, which would eliminate it from the tax rolls and prevent potential development in the future. The property, according to the report, will be repurposed as a stormwater management basin and for contractors to use when maintenance is required.
Emissions during the heaviest construction years — 2028 and 2029 — are predicted to more than double, but do not exceed federal "de minimis thresholds," the report noted.
The two pollutants of concern for the neighborhoods near the project — particulate matter, or PM2.5, and carbon monoxide — are predicted to be below the federal de minimis thresholds in the three scenarios studied, which were the current condition, a no-build option in 2050, and the condition if the project is built in 2050.
The report found the project could have "adverse impacts to noise at several receptors," including potential disruptions to nearby school classrooms facing the construction area but NJTA will minimize those "to the maximum extent practicable" using noise walls.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection noted concerns about some impacts to local fish species. NJTA responded by noting it will schedule construction to avoid spawning season in the spring.
In a statement, Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis said he still supports the project so that it will "handle increases in traffic in the decades to come," but added, "We need additional information from the Turnpike Authority about the exact impacts construction could have on the former Marist property and other parcels."
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