The removal of the three traffic lights that line the Garden State Parkway in Middle Township is more than a transportation project for Erik Meyer. It is a mission.
“I’m flabbergasted,” Meyer said as he learned that the state was at last awarding a contract to have the lights replaced with full interchanges. “We were waiting for this since my son was killed. This is all I’ve been doing.”
Christopher Meyer would be 25 years old if he were still alive, but a crash at the traffic light at exit 10 took his life when he was just 17.
“He was going to get his GED. He was thinking about joining the Navy. He was at that age when he was making decisions about his life,” Erik Meyer said.
Since the crash, Meyer and others opposed to the lights have worked to see their removal, and on Wednesday the New Jersey Turnpike Authority awarded a $72 million contract for the project more than 50 years in the making.
Richard E. Pierson Construction Co. will complete the two-and-a-half year project that’s scheduled to begin in January. The Pilesgrove, Salem County-based company submitted the lowest of four bids, all of which came in significantly lower than the authority’s nearly $105 million cost estimate. The highest bid, $87.8 million, submitted came from George Harms Construction Co. in Howell, Monmouth County.
While the contract awarded Wednesday represents the bulk of the project cost, it does not include the cost of land acquisition, design, or permitting — all of which have been financed previously. In all, the light removal at Crest Haven Road, Stone Harbor Boulevard, and Shell Bay Avenue is a $125 million project, one that will have the distinction of being one of the authority’s most expensive undertakings in South Jersey.
The traffic signals have been blamed for hundreds of accidents. But the project was plagued by delay after delay, resulting from a mix of design conflicts, funding gaps, and environmental issues, the most recent of which was solved after the authority came to a resolution on a wetlands mitigation requirement.
“Eliminating the traffic signals at interchanges 9, 10, and 11 will definitely contribute to a safer motorist experience in Cape May County,” NJTA Executive Director Ronnie Hakim said.
“I just can’t wait,” Meyer said. “You just don’t know how thrilled I am.”
His son was in the car with his mother, Betty, and little brother, Nicholas, now 13, heading to the family’s Cape May Court House home when the two-car collision took place.
“It’s been really hard on her,” Meyer said.
Days later, Erik Meyer began what became a crusade, even standing along the roadway for hours with signs that asked his son be the last to die here.
News of the traffic lights removal is also welcome by motel owner Susan Lin, who operates the Hyland Motor Inn, which sits adjacent to the parkway at the Mechanic Street exit.
The 34-room motel is open year-round and benefits from a prime frontage along the parkway’s southbound lanes.
But while Lin welcomes the removal of the lights, she worries about the future of her business after the East Mechanic Street exit is eliminated as well as during the lengthy construction process.
Lin said she hoped construction would cease during the summer tourist season from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekend as it did when road widening took place along Route 47 in Rio Grande.
“For the next three years, how can I survive in the middle of the construction,” Lin said.
Lin also said the loss of the Mechanic Street exit, which locals use to get to downtown Cape May Court House and Route 9, would inconvenience residents and businesses alike.
Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said the plan does still call for the elimination of the East Mechanic Street exit, but he said construction would likely not impact the parkway lanes near the motel as most of the work involves creating diversionary roads at the intersections and relocating utilities.
“It doesn’t appear that there should be a lot of interference with the lanes in the summer months,” he said.
Foster has been working on the elimination of the lights since he came to work for the county in 1991, he said.
“It’s going to make it a lot safer at all the intersections,” he said of the plan.
Of the 16 projects approved for the authority’s engineering department at a board meeting Wednesday in Woodbridge, Middlesex County, the traffic light removal was the largest and the only one singled out by state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Simpson. Also the chair of the NJTA board, Simpson noted he was pleased to see the project moving forward in line with the authority’s commitment to make the work a priority.
“We said a while ago, a year ago, (that we could) could commit to getting the contract out on the street for (exits) 9, 10, and 11, which was the three traffic signals in Cape May County,” Simpson said. “It’s a very unsafe condition where cars have to stop after they’ve been on the Parkway going 65 or 70 miles per hour.”
Staff writer Jennifer Bogdan contributed to this report.
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