The NextGen aviation park is located at the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township.

Michael Ein

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - A padlocked access road through the planned NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park has become an issue between the South Jersey Economic Development District and Atlantic County.

Connecting Amelia Earhart Boulevard and Delilah Road, the access road was financed through $2.5 million Atlantic County contributed to infrastructure improvements for the future park site. A 2009 ordinance adopted by the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders states that the road is intended to be a public ‘through' road.

Yet SJEDD Executive Director Gordon Dahl blocked off the boulevard-style roadway in late December, citing concerns about traffic flow, safety and liability. Atlantic County officials, who have offered to operate the road and indemnify SJEDD, argue that the road's closing is contributing to traffic flow problems at the reconfigured Airport Circle. The road was intended to ease the traffic flow at the circle, county officials say.

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The new circle opened Nov. 29 to harsh criticism from motorists regarding the intersection's design and traffic backups, which are at their worst when employees of the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center leave work at about 4 p.m.

A traffic report prepared by CMX Inc., a Sea Girt, Monmouth County-based engineering firm retained by SJEDD, states that the circle is designed to divert traffic from the circle to the new traffic light at Delilah Road.

"In light of the 2009 traffic study's conclusions, it is trusted that you will recognize the reasons that have been advanced to support closure of the road appear to be nothing more than uninformed or disingenuous excuses that fail to serve and protect the general public," reads a Jan. 9 letter from the county to the district.

Dahl argues that because the study initiated by his agency is now based on out-of-date traffic counts for the 25 mile-per-hour road, the numbers needs to be updated.

"Whether the counts were wrong or outdated, at this point we just don't know whether the road can handle the traffic flow," Dahl said. "There are safety issues. The light is not operational, and if an accident occurs on that road, I have to take the blame for it. I closed the road and advised the board after I made the decision."

Atlantic County officials, however, say they were told shutting down the road was an SJEDD board decision, and the reasons for closing it provided by SJEDD have changed over time. Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said at one point, he was told that drivers littering would be a concern.

While Dahl said the traffic light that is not activated at Delilah Road and the access road is a concern, Atlantic County Engineer Joe D'Abundo said the traffic light can be turned on to a ‘flash' mode with "10 minutes' notice" and can be fully operational within three days.

"This road is crucial to the circle. If the research park were up and running right now, the road would be open and there would be no controversy," Levinson said. "Their response is ridiculous. Some may say it's spiteful."

The clash over the road played out days after the Atlantic County Board of Freeholders's Jan. 3 decision to withdraw from SJEDD, citing concerns over the district's financial position and its failure to complete audits for two consecutive years.

County officials say those concerns were raised while completing an analysis of the district's financial position that was necessary because SJEDD was unable to provide an accurate account of the NextGen project's finances.

Meanwhile, SJEDD is also in negotiations with the NextGen park's board, of which the county is a member, to turn over the lease it holds with the FAA for the park's land. The district board has said it won't accept anything less than $858,000 for the transfer. The county has said the district isn't entitled to that money because other agreements dictate that the district assumed its own liabilities associated with the project.

Representatives from SJEDD, Atlantic County, FAA and the South Jersey Transportation Authority met in January to discuss the problem. Subsequently, the county sent another letter to the district Feb. 1 stating that the FAA and SJTA also believe the access road should be open. The letter requests that SJEDD sign a management agreement and open the road.

Dahl said the district will consider it, but no final decision has been made as he has not yet heard directly from the other parties.

"Nothing's been decided," he said.

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