Galloway Township residents will lose access to the Garden State Parkway’s Atlantic City Service Area from Jimmie Leeds Road when a new exit is constructed, despite lawmakers’ protests.
Richard Raczynski, chief engineer for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, said the access road from the service area to Jimmie Leeds will be closed once the new interchange is completed, “for two reasons.”
“No. 1, there’s a new State Police facility going there, and the State Police want it closed for security reasons. No. 2, once the interchange is done, there’s not going to be any safe way to turn off Jimmie Leeds Road to that service area.”
The Turnpike Authority, which operates the parkway, announced plans this winter for a $25 million reconfigured interchange at the service area that will be officially marked as Exit 41 and will not include a toll. The reconfiguration, which isn’t expected to be complete before 2014, also makes way for a new $7 million State Police barracks.
When the interchange is completed, motorists will still be able to enter the parkway from Jimmie Leeds Road, as well exit the toll road to the local road. But local access to the service plaza will end. Turnpike authorities have said the exit was only one of its kind along the parkway to allow local traffic into a service area.
The design calls for blocking an access road off of Jimmie Leeds Road that currently provides motorists with direct access to the service area without entering the parkway. Galloway residents and local officials have said that will be a significant inconvenience for residents who use the service area as a park and ride and frequent the businesses at the interchange.
Earlier this month, state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, called on the authority to gather residents’ input by hosting a public meeting on the project prior to making a final decision. Many constituents had expressed concern about the potential road closing, he said.
No meeting was ever held.
After hearing of the authority’s decision Wednesday, Whelan said the response exhibited a total lack of common sense, and he vowed to reach out to the Governor’s Office in an attempt to prevent the road’s closure.
“These guys are (zero) for three. They come in and cut down a bunch of trees that don’t need to be cut down. They put up a fence we don’t need, and now they’re closing an exit that works fine,” Whelan said. “Let’s see if we can prevent this before we have another embarrassing example of a state agency doing something stupid in South Jersey.”
State Sen. Christopher Connors, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, said he met with representatives of the Turnpike Authority in April regarding plans for the interchange and was pleased that the authority agreed to keep the access road open through the completion of Exit 41, so motorists will never have to go without access to Jimmie Leeds Road.
“We’ll continue to press for a change in plans. They have technical reasons that might justify why it is that they’re closing off that access,” Connors said. “Apparently, by the positioning of the State Police barracks, that will cause the access to be eliminated. I think it’s really a disservice to the people of Galloway to cut the ability to access that rest area. We’re not going to give up at this point.”
Whelan said the the authority’s reasoning sounded like an excuse.
“I don’t know what the State Police’s objections are to keeping the road open. You’re still going to be in an area where the public is pulling off the parkway,” he said. “Maybe they can take the fence from the (Great Egg Harbor) bridge and put that around the barracks if the issue is barracks security. That’s nonsense.”
Raczynski said the Turnpike Authority has considered alternative locations for a park and ride, but constructing one next to the new barracks will not be possible.
“I’m going to have to answer a letter from Sen. Connors on that park and ride,” he said Wednesday. “I’ll say this to the senator. There’s actually space next to the State Police facility that could be used for a park and ride, but there’s no way to safely come on and off Jimmie Leeds Road once the interchange is done.”
Raczynski said new traffic lights will be added to reconfigure the interchange. Due to regulations dictating the space between traffic lights, it would not be possible to add another traffic light for access to a park and ride, he said.
Galloway Township Mayor Don Purdy said he is disappointed the authority could not keep access to the road. He has asked the authority to consider adding a park and ride feature to Exit 44, which is also slated for a $25 million reconfiguration completed by the end of 2014. Currently, there is a northbound entrance ramp and a southbound exit ramp at milepost 44. The improvements will make the interchange accessible in all directions.
At a board meeting Wednesday, the Turnpike Authority also awarded a $6.2 million contract for the design of the parkway widening between mileposts 38 and 41.
However, it will still be years before South Jersey residents see the improvements in place. The design phase is expected to take a year and half. Once the design is finished, construction would take another two years, Raczynski said. The contract for the work was awarded to Gannett Fleming Inc., of South Plainfield, Middlesex County.
The widening between mileposts 38 and 41 is part of a third phase of the authority’s widening project extending from mileposts 48 to 35. Total cost for design of the third phase is $20 million. Original plans for phase three of the widening extended to milepost 30. However, Raczynski said the authority is now studying whether traffic warrants widening the final five miles.
The authority has already widened the parkway from exits 80 to 48 as part of a massive $900 million project that began in 2009.
Last year, the authority led a massive tree-clearing project on the parkway between mileposts 30 and 64.5. Officials originally said the clearing was part of an effort to improve driver safety, but documents obtained by The Press of Atlantic City showed that the clearing was also tied to the authority’s widening project.
On Wednesday, Raczynski said both were reasons for the tree clearing.
“It provided the clearing necessary to do the widening, and it also increased our safety zone, what we call our clear zone,” he said. “We get a lot of accidents down there with people hitting trees, so by pulling the trees back we actually created a safer condition.”
Staff writer Joel Landau contributed to this report.
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