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Home Travel Opponents want N.J. to ditch $10.7B Turnpike extension plan, send money to NJ Transit

Opponents want N.J. to ditch $10.7B Turnpike extension plan, send money to NJ Transit

by Staff

Opponents of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s $10.7 billion project to, among other things, widen the Turnpike extension to and from the Holland Tunnel want to know when they get to officially comment on the massive project’s first phase.

That is the beginning of a larger project that will also replace the 67-year-old Newark Bay Bridge with new twin cable stayed spans and replace 16 other bridges that make up the 4-mile highway between Exit 14 in Newark and 14A in Bayonne.

Opponents who spoke at the Turnpike Authority’s Tuesday meeting pressed officials for dates they previously said were supposed to happen early in 2024.

They also weighed in on Gov. Phil Murphy’s nominee for Transportation Commissioner, Francis K. O’Connor, who was nominated Friday. The group reiterated requests that the widening project be scuttled, except for necessary rehabilitation work and the funding used to expand NJ Transit service.

Talya Schwartz of Jersey City was among those who asked when promised public hearings would be held on the project’s first phase.

“None are scheduled and there is robust opposition in Hudson County,” she said.

Those hearings will happen starting next month, said Tom Feeney, a Turnpike Authority spokesman.

“Two are scheduled before the end of February and a third in March,” he said. “There are no dates.”

Feeney cautioned those hearings are only on the first phase of the project and not about the entire widening project.

“Arguably, the most important part is from exit 14 to 14A and the bridge,” Feeney said. “There will be additional Environmental Impact Statements about the next phases.”

The project needs two permits and eight approvals from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which are being applied for and carry their own public comment period, officials said.

Some of the information is available now on a “virtual public information center” video that was posted on the authority’s website on Monday. It addresses “many of the questions,” Feeney said.

That 25-minute video features the project engineer and consultants talking about the overall widening project but focuses on the first phase of the project between Exits 14 and 14A. They also answer some of the questions posed by the public at board of commissioners meeting.

Much of the information is a video version of information in the 1,500 page Environment Impact Statement.

Widening opponents also called for reallocating $150 million approved last month for a contract to do final designs and prepare construction documents on the twin bridges that would replace the aging span over Newark Bay.

Opponents said they want the money diverted to NJ Transit as a potential way to avoid a proposed 15% fare hike for riders.

“The NJ Turnpike Authority is planning on spending $109 million, just this year, on the Turnpike expansion,” said John Reichman, an Empower NJ steering committee member. “This is almost precisely the amount that would be raised by the 15% fare increase on NJT riders.”

He said state officials have a choice, to keep NJ Transit fares stable and provide dedicated NJT funding or spend $10.7 billion on a highway expansion project that is “universally detested and unneeded.”

Jimmy Lee, a Jersey City resident and board member of Safe Streets JC, questioned the validity of traffic studies for the project that were done in 2019.

“The project is based on pre-pandemic traffic studies,” he said. “They can’t be validated until Congestion Pricing takes effect.”

Congestion Pricing would charge a $15 fee to enter lower Manhattan and is projected by the MTA to lower traffic volume by 17%.

Turnpike Authority officials said the existing bridge can’t be rehabilitated due to structural issues and lacks carrying capacity for existing traffic. Roughly 80% of traffic on the extension is bound to Jersey City, Bayonne and other parts of Hudson County, they said.

Opponents also called on state Senators to question Acting Transportation Commissioner O’Connor’s resume during confirmation hearings, which they said is heavy on highway experience and light on public transit experience. He spent 16 years working for the Turnpike Authority, before being employed in toll-related private companies.

As commissioner, O’Connor will be the chairman of NJ Transit’s board of directors and the boards of commissioners for the Turnpike Authority and South Jersey Transportation Authority, which runs the Atlantic City Expressway and Atlantic City airport.

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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on X @CommutingLarry.

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