In a move that will pave the way for future growth, the South Jersey Transportation Authority plans to construct a $2.5 million communication command center, expanding its current dispatch operations based at the Farley Plaza rest stop on the Atlantic City Expressway.
Planned as a 2,000-square-foot addition to the State Police barracks at the rest stop, the addition will provide dispatchers their own work stations and expanded room for equipment such as new video displays. The building will also be sized to allow for future expansion as the center takes on more responsibility, officials said.
Mirrored after the statewide traffic management center based in Woodbridge, Middlesex County, the much smaller version in Egg Harbor Township has been in the works for several years. Bids were sought for the project a year and a half ago, but financial concerns kept the authority from immediately awarding a contract.
Funding, however, was freed up earlier last year when the authority opted to forego imminent plans to switch to all-electronic tolling on the expressway — an $18 million initiative. A contract for the construction was awarded in December to R. Wilkinson & Sons Construction of Absecon.
“The reason for the expansion is this building was built in the very early ’90s and a lot of additional responsibilities have been put on the dispatchers. The current setup just doesn’t have the physical space necessary and was not sized for future growth,” SJTA acting Executive Director Sam Donelson said.
Dispatchers based at the service plaza handle all calls for State Police on the expressway and at Atlantic City International Airport. Camera feeds from those areas, including the tunnel on the Atlantic City-Brigantine Connector, are handled at the center as are online traffic alerts for the expressway.
Firefighting crews at the airport, however, are currently dispatched through the Federal Aviation Administration. SJTA intends to move those responsibilities to dispatchers at the service plaza some time after the expansion is complete.
While the new center will provide a clear upgrade over the current services, at one time officials were seriously considering a much more significant upgrade. In 2009, SJTA and Atlantic County were considering the possibility of a centralized dispatching headquarters for the region in the form a multimillion-dollar facility that could be built on the grounds of the Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township.
With increased priority placed on shared service arrangements, the new regionalized 911 center would have eliminated the need for individualized dispatching centers in municipalities. Instead, the center would have relocated operators to a centralized location alongside airport staff.
Plans for the center emerged from a 2009 study by AECOM of Piscataway, Middlesex County. The study, known as the Atlantic City Regional Transportation Plan, was commissioned by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority at a time when traffic to the resort had been steadily increasing and officials expected the area’s infrastructure would soon no longer be able to accommodate the crowds without significant upgrades.
The plan — which also detailed overhead walkways, a water taxi service and a monorail system connecting with the airport — suggested that a regional traffic center be built with the ability to synchronize traffic signals in Atlantic City for optimum traffic flow depending on the time of year, day of the week, a concert, or evacuation traffic.
“One size does not fit all for signal timing in Atlantic City,” the study states. “Also, traffic volumes related to several sporting and entertainment events scheduled in the city justify a need for real-time traffic monitoring and signal-timing changes.”
Donelson said the SJTA has not abandoned plans for the center, but given funding constraints, the $40 million project isn’t likely to happen in the immediate future. The SJTA has twice applied for federal funding for the project and been denied.
A 10-year capital plan shows $40 million devoted to its construction in 2015, but a source for the funds hasn’t been identified.
“A lot of this is unknown. If planning money becomes available, this is a necessary project,” Donelson said.
Similar holdups have been seen in other transportation projects. Plans to construct a direct exit from the Atlantic City Expressway to the Atlantic City International Airport that would bypass local roads have been put on hold without funding for the $40 million to $50 million project.
Earlier this month, the authority moved forward with plans to split the project into multiple phases to help relieve congestion at Airport Circle. The smaller project could cost as much as $13 million, including a $2 million to $3 million contribution from Atlantic County, and is expected to provide some relief.
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