Last month, the Christie Administration announced that it was able to “prioritize enough money” to accelerate its project to widen the Garden State Parkway. In a release, the NJ Turnpike Authority said that in June it would bid out contracts to “add a third lane in each direction between milepost 48 in Port Republic and milepost 63 and provide grading and drainage improvements between mileposts 30 and 48.” This is the second part of a multi-phase widening of the Parkway between mileposts 30 and 80; the widening of the Parkway between miles 30 and 48 remains unfunded. Gov. Christie’s support for the wasteful project seemingly goes against his mantra of reducing spending on projects the state can’t afford. According to Turnpike Authority studies, the widened Parkway will fill with traffic just a few years after completion.
The second phase of the widening wasn’t included in NJTA’s 2011 capital plan, and this announcement puts the project back on the schedule laid out by the Corzine administration. (In 2009, the Corzine administration said the widening between miles 48 and 63 would begin in July 2011, while the phase between miles 30 and 48 was unfunded.)
Despite the announcement, TSTC hasn’t been able to find an actual action or public comment from the Turnpike Authority that would explain how the agency freed up money for the widening. As recently as the April 13 State Senate Budget Committee hearing (two days before the announcement), NJDOT Commissioner Jim Simpson was describing the second phase as “lacking board approval.” The project wasn’t mentioned during NJTA’s March board meeting and didn’t appear on the April 27 meeting agenda.
The release seemed timed to deflect mounting criticism of the agency over a massive, ambiguous tree-clearing project along the Parkway which began earlier this year. State Sen. Jeff Van Drew had been vigorously seeking clarification as to why the NJTA had undertaken a massive tree clearing project along 34 miles of the Parkway (between mile 30 and 64.5) in his South Jersey district. Senator Van Drew received inconsistent responses regarding the purpose of the tree clearing, with the authority sometimes citing traffic safety and other times pointing to the furtherance of the widening project.
The April 13 Senate Budget Hearing was a prime opportunity to directly ask Commissioner Simpson about the tree clearing’s intended purpose. When questioned, Simpson stated that the trees were removed to “fast track” the Parkway widening once funding was found and contracts awarded. Interestingly enough, NJTA’s press release cites both traffic safety and the impending widening as dual purposes of the premature clearing. But the explanation doesn’t wash, since there’s still no funding for the widening south of mile 48.
Also during the budget hearing, Senator Van Drew requested a public hearing on the tree cutting in response to his outraged consitutents. Simpson indicated he would cooperate with the request to hold a hearing in the near future. No word yet on the fate of the public hearing(s) in light of the apparent funding find. The NJTA did state in its release that it is “working with the [Dept. of Environmental Protection] to determine the appropriate method of mitigating the loss of trees resulting from the widening.”
Photo: Dale Gerhard/Press of Atlantic City.