Plan unveiled to widen section of New Jersey Turnpike

| 12/1/2004

Acting Gov. Richard Codey unveiled a plan Wednesday, Dec. 1, to widen a 20-mile stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike. The project reportedly could cost more than $1 billion.

Trucking industry officials and others said the proposal, coming at a time when the state faces budget deficits and is unable to get federal funding for toll roads, was likely to require increases in toll rates and possibly an increase in the state fuel tax.

Plans call for widening the road from Interchange 8A in Middlesex County to Interchange 6 in Burlington County in the central and southern parts of the state.

Codey announced the expansion plans at his morning address at the State of the Region meeting in Cherry Hill.

Officials had not yet determined whether the highway would be expanded to four lanes or five, from the existing three lanes in each direction, The Associated Press reported.

Traffic congestion is common at Exit 8A, where the Turnpike shrinks southbound from five lanes to three in a merger of truck and passenger vehicle lanes and expands northbound.

News of the expansion plan was greeted receptively, though with some caution, by trucking industry officials and representatives of drivers’ groups in the state.

Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association, said the news was “a welcome surprise” to an industry that had watched various other proposals to ease congestion fail amid budgetary and environmental concerns.

She said that by a conservative count, 147 warehouses and distribution centers have sprouted around Exit 8A in recent years and that some employed as many as a few hundred people. Because there is little or no public transportation in that part of the state, she said, most of those workers must drive to work.

At the same time, residential development is also booming in the area. “And all you have is the little old turnpike going through there,” Toth said.

Steve Carrellas, New Jersey coordinator of the National Motorists Association, said his group generally favored “the idea of increased capacity when there is a need” but was concerned about higher tolls being attached to the expansion.

“You can only guess that size of program is going to require a toll hike,” he said. “We just don’t know the extent of it yet.”

A Codey administration spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity to The AP, maintained that no toll or fuel tax increase is imminent.

An 18-month, $10 million study is being conducted to determine project costs and the number of lanes to be built.

Officials think the widening project would help keep traffic moving, especially after 2011, when Pennsylvania is scheduled to complete a link between its turnpike and Interstate 95 in nearby Bucks County. That project is expected to funnel thousands more cars and trucks onto the New Jersey Turnpike at Interchange 6, which connects to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“The gridlock down there is just unbelievable,” said Toth. “This is really exciting news. I know it’s not going to happen tomorrow. But hopefully it won’t take 20 years, either.”

– By Keith Goble, staff writer