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Work Begins to Widen N.J. Turnpike Bottleneck

Fri July 17, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Victor Epstein

EAST WINDSOR, N.J. (AP) Ground was broken July 2 on a $2.7 billion project to ease a long-standing bottleneck on the New Jersey Turnpike, one of the nation’s busiest roads.

Traffic routinely backs up for miles in the section where 12 lanes are reduced to 10 and finally to six, and motorists will have to endure some new construction-related delays until the project is finished in 2014.

The Turnpike carries an average of 680,000 vehicles daily, including many heading to New York City and Philadelphia. The highway is a major East Coast route and drivers dread the traffic backups caused by the bottleneck.

Currently, the highway has six lanes south of Cranbury and Jamesburg. Above that point, the highway is wider, with separate lanes for cars only and another set for trucks, buses and cars.

The project will increase the number of lanes to 12 and extend the divided lanes along the 25 mi. (40 km) of highway between Cranbury and the Pennsylvania Turnpike interchange, near Mansfield. Ten miles (16 km) of roadway between Cranbury and East Brunswick will be expanded from 10 lanes to 12.

Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, executive director of the Turnpike Authority, said construction-related delays will be minimized by allowing existing lanes to continue to function. The six lanes in the narrowest segment of the construction area will serve as the inner roadway for cars after the project is completed. New lanes will belong to the new outer roadway, which will be designated for cars and trucks.

The project will add 170 lane miles (273.6 km) of new pavement to the Turnpike. Pipelines and fiber-optic cable are already being moved, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. Visible road construction won’t start until August.

The project is being funded entirely by state dollars, a distinction Gov. Jon Corzine said gives New Jersey more control over it. The widening effort is part of a 10-year capital improvement program at the Turnpike Authority totaling $7 billion.

Turnpike officials said the project will create or sustain 18,000 jobs, with 4,500 going directly to road construction workers. It “has the benefit of creating jobs,’’ Corzine said, but “the primary goal is to correct the problem with regard to transportation and congestion.’’

New Jersey residents have some of the nation’s most time-consuming daily commutes, according to U.S. Census data. They typically spend 29.4 minutes driving to work, compared with a national average of 25.1 minutes.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, opposes the widening project, which he said will destroy wetlands and extend suburban sprawl into some of The Garden State’s remaining farmland.

“Widening roads without reducing demand does little to ease traffic,’’ Tittel said. “The more lanes you build, the more development you promote, and the more cars you will get.’’

The Sierra Club also opposes the $8.7 billion effort to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, between New Jersey and Manhattan. That project, which began in June, is expected to eliminate a rail bottleneck.

“Today we are breaking ground on a project that will do the same for our highway system,’’ Stephen Dilts, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, said of the highway project.

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