Early supporters of the Atlantic City Expressway predicted it would transform South Jersey and the shore communities with new housing and economic development — creating what they had hoped would be a “veritable suburbs of Philadelphia.”

Fifty years later, analysts will take a closer look at the toll road’s role in the region to see if those predictions really came true. An economic impact study will be conducted for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the expressway’s operating agency, as part of a series of monthly events tied to the highway’s golden anniversary.

The economic findings will be released in June. The study will be done by the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College and a New Jersey transportation consulting firm headed by James Crawford, who formerly served as executive director of the SJTA.

Expressway officials also are planning a series of lighter events to celebrate the 50th anniversary, including a classic car show, a fireworks display and an attempt to set a new world record for the most people playing horseshoes on the beach.

A grand celebration is planned for July 31, the expressway’s anniversary date. On July 31, 1964, Teaneck resident Omero C. Catan, driving a Chevrolet convertible, became the first motorist to travel the road.

When it first opened, the expressway had a legal speed limit of 70 mph and a 75-cent fare at its main toll plaza. Fifty years later, the posted speed limit has been lowered to 65 mph, but the toll at the Egg Harbor plaza has been raised to $3.

In a throwback to 1964, the SJTA is planning an “old-fashioned day at the beach” in Atlantic City on July 31. Fireworks will cap the event. On the same day, the SJTA hopes to set a Guinness World Record by having the most people ever play horseshoes on the beach.

“We have made application to Guinness. We are waiting to hear back from them,” said Sharon Gordon, the SJTA’s deputy executive director.

Other less elaborate events will be held each month leading up to the July 31 celebration. The SJTA hopes the events will keep the expressway in the public spotlight throughout the spring and summer.

On April 25, a classic car show and tree-planting ceremony will be held at the expressway’s Farley Service Plaza in Hamilton Township. The event will coincide with National Arbor Day. In all, five trees will be planted at the Farley plaza, representing the expressway’s five decades of operation.

On May 23, the SJTA will kick off the Memorial Day weekend with a “100 days of summer” celebration at the Farley plaza. Details of that event are still unfolding, Gordon said.

All of the celebrations at the Farley plaza will underscore the importance of the expressway’s main political backer, the late Sen. Frank S. “Hap” Farley. The powerful Atlantic County Republican was chiefly responsible for the state legislation that led to the expressway’s construction. Farley’s restored 1960s-era portrait, which is on display inside the service plaza, was unveiled in February to begin the 50th anniversary celebration.

Farley and other supporters envisioned the expressway as a way to bring tourists to Atlantic City and spur economic development in the South Jersey communities surrounding the highway. During the early years, the expressway was a quiet road, but the advent of Atlantic City casino gambling in 1978 turned it into a bustling corridor that now handles more than 52 million vehicles per year and generates $76 million in annual toll revenue.

The SJTA’s economic impact analysis will study the expressway’s benefits for tourism, transportation, housing and commercial development in the region over the past 50 years.

The study is expected to be completed in late May, with the findings publicly released in mid- or late June during a business forum in Atlantic City. The forum will be led by a panel of former expressway and SJTA executive directors.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258

More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.