Road work ahead all over shore in new NJ transportation plan

Published in the Asbury Park Press 9/18/02

A new Mantoloking Bridge, which carries Route 528 over Barnegat Bay. A new Route 70 Bridge over the Manasquan River. Sidewalk safety improvements in Monmouth County.

The North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority yesterday approved a three-year, $2.1 billion Transportation Improvement Program that covers work on these and many other projects, including 29 in Monmouth and Ocean counties costing a total of $143.3 million.

The package of improvements still needs approval from the governor and funding from the Legislature. Members of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and 19 environmental groups are against highway projects that they contend will lead to more sprawl in the state, and have asked Gov. McGreevey to veto the minutes of yesterday's meeting and send the plan back to the drawing board. The governor has 10 days to decide on any veto.

Mantoloking Mayor William K. Dunbar was "ecstatic" to hear that the Mantoloking bridge is on the list for replacing.  "We can't wait," he said. "It's long, long overdue."

Dunbar said his greatest fear is that the lift mechanism on the current bridge might fail, with the span becoming stuck in one position, cutting off cars or boats. The parts are too old to be replaced, he said.

Barry Wehner, chief of the Breton Woods Fire Company in Brick, said he will be glad to have a new span that assuredly can hold the weight of his firetrucks.

The transit authority also approved a longer-range Regional Transportation Plan that transportation, environmental and other groups contend promotes sprawling development.

"We're very disappointed," said Janine G. Bauer, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an alliance of groups that favors reduced dependence on cars. Gov. McGreevey's administration "wants to invest in the same kind of sprawl-inducing (highway expansion) projects" as the previous administration, she said.

Expanded and new highways often pave the way for more development along them, resulting in a cycle of traffic congestion and more road construction, according to the campaign.

DOT chief responds

State Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox rejected such criticisms.  "This administration doesn't take a back seat to anyone with regard to making sure we do not add to the sprawl problem," Fox said. "There will be less widening and more repair of existing roads than ever before. That is our philosophy. If you don't pass the test, the project won't get funded."

All told, the authority's Transportation Improvement Program for fiscal years 2003 through 2005 calls for more than $6 billion in transportation investments in northern and central New Jersey.

It is a schedule of improvements for which planning has been completed, according to the authority. Most of the projects involve federal funds. Fiscal 2003 begins Oct. 1.

The program includes eight projects in Ocean County costing a total of $50.3 million. In Monmouth County, 21 projects totaling $93 million are on the list.

Paul J. Shives, Stafford's township administrator, applauded a plan to make improvements on Route 72 from the Garden State Parkway to Route 9. The authority plan calls for $1.3 million for design work in 2003 and $3.3 million for right-of-way acquisitions in 2004.  "That's very, very important," Shives said.

Bay Head Mayor Arthur Petracco said he welcomes the planned drainage and shoulder improvements on Route 35 from Point Pleasant Beach to Dover Township, scheduled for construction in 2005. In the winter, water collects on shoulders and turns to ice, creating a dangerous situation for motorists, Petracco said.

But the Regional Transportation Plan is coming in for strong criticism from 20 transportation, environmental, taxpayer and other groups. Last week, they urged McGreevey to put off new highway widening projects.

Plans to study 31 miles of Route 9, 9.7 miles of Route 70 and 9.9 miles of Route 88, all in Ocean County, are "projects that run contrary to smart growth principles," said the opposition groups, which also cited examples in other counties.

But Fox said the three congested roads need to be studied, and being on the list doesn't mean that they will get widened.  "It could mean that we have to improve an intersection," or a road needs better signals or curbing or repaving, he said. "It could involve widening, of course. . . . We can't put our heads in the sand and pretend that these trouble spots around the state don't exist."

Steve Carrellas, coordinator of the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association, said the group favors the highway projects.

Pitch for new rail line

During the public comment period at the authority's meeting in Newark yesterday, the authority was chastised by William Wright, a director of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, for favoring highway projects and stalling on rail projects such as restoring passenger service to the Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex line.

The line would link Lakehurst and Lakewood with NJ Transit lines serving northern New Jersey and New York City.

"NJ-ARP has watched with growing concern as the NJTPA has continued to stress road over rail," said Wright, of Cranford in Union County. "More shameful is the delay in advancing MOM, which would serve 100 intrastate markets in a region already growing rapidly."

Paul Sauerland, a Hunterdon County freeholder and an authority member, said the plan is equally divided between rail and highway projects.

State officials have said they will schedule as many as 10 public hearings on the rail proposal in the three counties, beginning next month.

Hearings and an environmental impact study must be conducted before the state can apply for federal transportation dollars to help finance the $400 million project.

Staff writer Larry Higgs contributed to this story.

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