CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — A $125 million project to eliminate three Garden State Parkway traffic lights was met mostly by support from residents at a public hearing Thursday evening, though many wanted minor changes.

The hearing drew about 100 residents during a two-hour session in which residents could look at plans and ask questions, and then a 90-minute session where they could make public comments.

Sound barriers were requested by several residents who live along the highway. Some said the parkway is already loud and a plan to reduce wooded buffer areas near some streets to construct bridges and overpasses could make it worse.

“They want a chain-link fence, but I’d rather have a noise barrier. They told me noise barriers would have to wait until after the project is done and they do noise studies,” said John Hutchins of Steel Road in Middle Township.

Still, Hutchins, who said he has lived most of his 60 years on the street, is in favor of eliminating traffic signals on Shell Bay Avenue, Stone Harbor Boulevard and Crest Haven Road. Other than the flashing signal at Exit 0, they are the only signals on the 172-mile parkway.

“I’m totally for the overpasses. They’re definitely needed. The project is needed,” Hutchins said.

Donald Chappa, an engineer with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, said initially 26 acres of trees would be destroyed, partly because diversionary roads would be constructed along the northbound side of the parkway to handle traffic during the three-year project. Chappa said 19 acres would be replanted later.

“My husband is a landscaper, and I can tell you planting trees and bushes will not replace a good sound barrier wall,” said Alicia Woodrow, of Bennett Road in Middle Township.

Woodrow said there are concerns such walls would make the area look “like North Jersey,” but she suggested planting ivy on them.

Middle Township Business Administrator Mark Mallett said the Township Committee recommends the project move forward without sound barrier walls but once completed noise studies be done to see if they are needed.

Several residents protested the format for the final part of the hearing, which allowed residents to make comments but did not have officials respond. The earlier two-hour session allowed people to individually ask questions.

“We thought there would be an interchange. The court reporter is taking notes but nobody is responding, so we wrote our questions down and submitted them. Hopefully they will respond,” said Bernard Alexander, an employee at the Hyland Motor Inn, which will lose direct access to the parkway under the project.

Public officials at the meeting gave their support for the plans.

“What we’re dealing with now is the mistakes made 50 years ago,” said Freeholder Director Jerry Thornton. “When this is done it will be a major benefit to Cape May County. It will be more efficient and safer.”

Project Engineer Dennis Conklin said this section of the parkway was actually constructed more than 50 years ago, in 1949, when it was originally known as the Cape May Court House bypass. It has been the site of numerous accidents over the years, including three fatal crashes since 2004. Conklin said the problem is not just the traffic signals but numerous local streets had access to the bypass. He said the project will turn the roadway into the type of interstate highway “you all are familiar with.”

Conklin said 20-foot high bridges would be constructed at all three intersections, with ramp connections to the parkway. There would be traffic lights on the ramps at Stone Harbor Boulevard and Crest Haven Road and stop signs on the Shell Bay Avenue ramps. Parkway traffic would go on the bridges, while local traffic on the three roads would go under them. Chappa said sidewalks would be constructed under the bridges for pedestrians.

Stone Harbor Mayor Suzanne Walters said there would actually be more traffic lights along Stone Harbor Boulevard and she is worried that during construction motorists may use Avalon to get to her town.

“My concern is four lights from Bayberry to Route 9,” Walters said, adding that she fully supports the project.

“I think it’s going to be wonderful when it’s completed. It will be great for emergency access to the hospital (Cape Regional Medical Center) and all the tourists coming to the county,” Walters said.

Chappa said diversionary roads would be constructed next to the northbound lane and the highway would never be closed.

“In the fall of 2013 we’ll build diversionary roads. Northbound traffic goes to these roads and southbound traffic uses the vacated northbound lanes. We can then work on approach roads and southbound bridges,” Chappa said.

After that, traffic is diverted again and the northbound side can be constructed, Chappa said. Eventually the pavement and the temporary traffic signals on the diversionary roads will be removed, wetlands filled in to construct the roads will be restored, and trees will be planted.

When completed the parkway in this area will only be two lanes in each direction. Now there are three lanes in some areas including the “signal lanes.” Without the signals Chappa said only two lanes are needed.

It ends the easy parkway access some residents and businesses had. The Hyland Motor Inn will lose its access from Mechanic Street, which will be closed to the parkway.

“How will visitors gain access to our motel so we can continue to do business?” asked Jason Fithiancq, an employee at the motel.

Conklin said the project covers about 4.5 miles of roadway and will take three years with construction starting next spring. Thornton said the project should generate business for the local community. The county is actually contributing land to the project for the price of just $1, Chappa said.

Conklin said all the land has not yet been purchased for the ramps but negotiations are ongoing. He said 3.54 acres is needed at Crest Haven Road, but much of this is county land. Another 1.84 acres are needed at Stone Harbor Boulevard and Conklin only a 10-foot-wide strip is needed at Shell Bay Avenue.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711