CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Acting Gov. Kim Guadagno said Monday that having a “Welcome to New Jersey” sign followed by three consecutive traffic lights on the Garden State Parkway is not a pleasant greeting for travelers from the south.
More importantly, the mother of a 17-year-old said, no one should have to hear news of their child’s death, as was the case with Erik Meyer, of Middle Township, who lost his 17-year-old son, Christopher, in an accident at one of the lights.
“I’m proud as a mother to be able to stand up here and keep this one small promise,” Guadagno said at the groundbreaking Monday for the project to remove the three traffic lights.
The ceremony at the Cape May County administration building for the $110 million, two-year project marked an important step in getting that promise fulfilled for Meyer, who has been the face of the campaign for the lights’ removal.
Meyer choked up with emotion and wiped tears from his face as he thanked all those involved. He also said he wishes he will be the last parent to go through the pain he still feels.
“You just don’t lose a son,” he said. “You lose a whole family, because no one else is the same.”
Meyer joined state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, at the podium, and they hugged and reminisced about their work to raise support for the work.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority awarded a contract for the project in December. All three traffic lights on the highway in Middle Township will be replaced with overpasses.
“We all agree they don’t belong,” Turnpike Authority Executive Director Ronnie Hakim said.
Bridges will be built over Shell Bay Avenue at Exit 9, Stone Harbor Boulevard at Exit 10 and Crest Haven Road at Exit 11, just outside the county complex. Ramps at each overpass will provide full access between the roads and the parkway.
“I have come out of this county complex day after day and watched our residents at risk,” Freeholder Director Jerry Thornton said.
The cost will be split, with the state paying $78 million and the federal government contributing $32 million, officials said Monday.
“For the people of Cape May County, this is your victory,” said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd.
The lights pre-date the parkway. They were installed when the former New Jersey Highway Department built a bypass around Cape May Court House in the 1940s. They remained when the bypass became part of the parkway in 1954.
These are technically the only traffic lights on the parkway, although there is a traffic light at the intersection of Route 109 where the parkway ends in Lower Township. That has been the site of several fatal crashes since its existence, and building an overpass there has also been suggested.
Removing the lights in Middle Township will start with relocating utilities and building a temporary diversionary road parallel to the northbound side of the highway. The new road should be complete in three months and will carry vehicles while the overpasses are constructed.
Meyer’s son died in a two-car accident in November 2004 at Stone Harbor Boulevard. A few months earlier, a Mays Landing man, Melvin Loftus, 66, was killed at Crest Haven Road when his car was crushed between a bus and two trucks.
In September 2006, an 86-year-old Lower Township man also died in a car crash near Crest Haven Road. At least scores more less-serious accidents happen every year along that almost-three-mile stretch of highway.
“There has never been an area that has been this underserved,” Van Drew said about that part of the parkway.
For locals, the success of the lights’ removal has yet to be fully determined. Making sure there are minimal disruptions to travelers, businesses, residents and the surrounding natural environment will be an ongoing effort.
Middle Township Mayor Dan Lockwood said he attended Monday’s groundbreaking to discuss those concerns with officials and make sure there is consistent contact as the work proceeds. He fears long delays and mishaps that characterized construction on Route 47 in Rio Grande from 2002 to 2004.
“Businesses had to close because of that,” he said Monday.
Meanwhile, the authority has heard complaints at public meetings about the potential environmental damage from removing trees surrounding the highway.
The New Jersey No Net Loss Reforestation Act requires state agencies to replace trees removed during construction projects, though, so 26 impacted forested acres will be replaced with 20 acres of new trees planted nearby and an additional 6.25 acres elsewhere.
The project will also impact almost five acres of freshwater wetlands and more than two acres of tidal wetlands. The authority says it will spend $5 million to restore, preserve or enhance more than 38 acres of wetlands in the county and buy mitigation credits.
Guadagno, the lieutenant governor but acting governor since Chris Christie was in Louisiana for the Super Bowl, pledged that she and other officials would be available to make sure the work is as a painless as possible.
“If we can make it better, we will,” she said. “If we can’t, we’ll explain why we can’t.”
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