LACEY TOWNSHIP - For more than a decade, motorists and engineers alike have considered the Garden State Parkway, plagued by chronic backups and bottlenecks, a failed roadway.
In the past few weeks, however, signs of coming relief have appeared on its shoulders - orange cones and concrete barriers that signal the beginning of a $900 million widening project. The overall project will expand the highway from two to three lanes from Exit 80 in Toms River to Exit 30 in Somers Point during the next several years.
Lanes already have been shifted starting in Toms River and heading south through Barnegat Township, and crews already were cutting trees to make room for more asphalt. Concrete barriers were set up, pushing traffic into narrow "cattle chutes" even as the shore tourist season hits full swing.
Construction of the first, $220 million phase, which will widen the road between mileposts 63 and 80 and install an Express E-ZPass lane at the Barnegat toll plaza, is expected to finish by December 2011.
David Taylor, president of the Southern Ocean Chamber of Commerce, said he has not heard any complaints about the widening project starting during the summer. He said the rehabilitation of the Route 72 bridge to Long Beach Island "was our big concern" for this season, saying that would have been a disaster for island businesses until it was delayed.
For the parkway, though, he said he understands that crews can work only during certain parts of the year and that highway construction is just something people have come to expect.
"There's no great answer to that," he said. "It needs to get done."
But several groups have opposed the project vehemently, saying it will waste money by failing to alleviate traffic in the long term and degrading the environment along the way.
"All we're doing is turning the parkway into a bigger, more expensive parking lot," Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement Monday afternoon. "This project will create two 50-mile long ribbons of asphalt, which will pave over the Pinelands and environmentally sensitive coastal areas, will make sprawl and traffic worse and take money away from the areas that actually need it."
Tittel said the state should have considered more public transportation options, fixing problem interchanges and constructing partial widenings in specific locations.
He also said more environmental studies should have been done to prevent effects on sensitive land from construction and water runoff, and said the widened roadway would only contribute to sprawl and overdevelopment in the region.
"If you build it, they will come," he said. "That's what this is all about."
The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit group created to reduce dependency on cars, also has opposed the project, arguing that congestion pricing at tolls is a more effective way to eliminate traffic jams.
But Gov. Jon S. Corzine differed. "This is absolutely essential for the communities along the parkway," he said at a ceremonial ground-breaking at the Forked River service area. Corzine, appearing with New Jersey Turnpike Authority officials, said the widening is vital not only for residents who use the road regularly, but for the tourism industry that he said contributed $40 billion to the state's economy last year.
"It is essential to provide the infrastructure to make that flow freely," he said, benefiting Atlantic City and other shore destinations.
The entire project is expected to accommodate traffic through 2025, according to Turnpike Authority spokesman Joe Orlando. After that, he said, "our data does not indicate there will be a failure at that point."
The second phase of the project, which expands the road between mileposts 48 and 63, starts in July 2011 and should finish by May 2013. Phase three covers mileposts 30 through 48 and awaits funding before it is scheduled.
Corzine said that once the overall project is complete, the Manahawkin Bay bridge to Long Beach Island is replaced and construction is complete in Ocean City and along the Atlantic City Expressway, "we will have really opened up the access to the Jersey shore."
Nearly 1,900 jobs will be created by the project, according to the Turnpike Authority.
Jim Episale, owner of Unshredded Nostalgia, an antique store in Barnegat Township, also spoke at the event, saying the project would improve access to his and other businesses across the region.
"I do have customers who put off coming in the summer because they don't want to fight traffic," he said.
Episale acknowledged the project has "naysayers," but said he believed it could only help the area.
"And people will be less aggravated when they get here because they won't have to wait in traffic," he said.
The Hock and Recarrdi families from Brooklyn, N.Y., were in the parking lot on their way to Atlantic City.
They said that over the years they learned to avoid the parkway on weekends and holidays, and upon first hearing about the project they were excited at the prospect of having quicker access to the shore.
"Sounds like it'll be smooth sailing," Donna Hock said.
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