WOODBRIDGE _ Motorists making their way to Cape May County’s southernmost shore towns will soon not encounter the stop-and-go traffic patterns created by the only three traffic lights on the Garden State Parkway.
Construction on a $125 million project that will eliminate the lights at Crest Haven Road, Stone Harbor Boulevard and Shell Bay Avenue — blamed for hundreds of accidents in recent years — will begin in December. It will be another two and a half years before the project, first proposed more than 50 years ago, will be complete, New Jersey Turnpike Authority Chief Engineer Richard Raczynski said Tuesday.
“This is an incredibly sensitive project that has to happen. … We’re moving forward with the right-of-way acquisition,” said state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, who chairs the NJTA board. “This project has to happen to save lives.”
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, has wanted the improvements for a decade. Two fatal accidents in 2008 and 2009 near Stone Harbor Boulevard led to the installation of guardrails separating the northbound and southbound lanes, but removing the lights all together is necessary for a significant safety improvement, Van Drew said.
“After a little over a half a century, this thing is finally going to get started,” Van Drew said. “Once everybody involved realized the seriousness of this, people worked together. I told (those involved), ‘If one more person dies because we can’t work out a bureaucratic mess, there’s going to be a lot of noise.’”
Earlier this year, state and local leaders feared the project might be delayed by a year due to conflicts arising from state-required wetlands mitigation, but those problems have since been solved, officials said. Delays are a familiar story for the project, which has faced decades of holdups stemming from design conflicts and funding issues.
The Turnpike Authority voted Tuesday to pay one Middle Township property owner $10,500 for three quarters of an acre needed to construct concrete overpasses and ramps that will take the place of current access points. The authority has made offers to nearly 100 property owners whose land is needed, officials said.
Raczynski said he did not know how many sales have yet to be negotiated. Nonetheless, he said he is confident that process will be complete by December.
“Most of these are just little slivers (of land),” Raczynski said. “We’ve made offers to everybody. We’ve heard back from some, a lot we haven’t; but we can begin condemnation proceedings if necessary.”
A public hearing on the project will take place Oct. 4 at the Cape May County Administration Building. There, the project design will be on display, officials said.
The authority also voted Tuesday to enter into an agreement with the state Department of Transportation allowing for the release of $30 million in federal funding that was secured for the project seven years ago.
Another $7 million from the same allocation that funded design and environmental work has already been released. The Turnpike Authority will fund the remaining $87.5 million of the project, whose price tag has skyrocketed in the years since it was first proposed.
A study in 1986 suggested that the improvements would cost $10 million, which would have the buying power of $21 million by today’s standards. The now $125 million project is one of the largest the Turnpike Authority has undertaken in the region. The authority also will begin work in March on a $210 million project that will add a wider southbound span to the parkway bridge over Great Egg Harbor Bay and demolish the Beesleys Point Bridge.
The plan to remove the traffic lights was complicated earlier this year by environmental regulations. To complete the work the Turnpike Authority will construct concrete overpasses and ramps that will destroy 3.5 acres of saltwater wetlands. For every acre of wetlands that is destroyed, two must be created in the same vicinity, according to state law.
The authority first targeted an old railroad bed over a salt marsh crossing into West Wildwood as mitigation land, but Atlantic City Electric Co. initially opposed that use because the rail bed is used for transmission lines and the company feared the plan could hinder service.
That led the authority to look elsewhere for mitigation land, leading to further conflicts as the authority approached a Middle Township property owner who refused to sell his land.
“We were looking all over thinking how are we going to do this. You have to mitigate in the same general area,” Raczynski said.
In April, Atlantic City Electric and the authority came to a verbal agreement involving the originally planned site, signaling that the obstacle was overcome. Details of the agreement, however, remain vague. The parties have not disclosed the terms because documents have not yet been signed.
“While we don’t have a signed agreement, we are close and we expect to have one soon,” Atlantic City Elextric spokesman Bill Yingling said.
The seven acres of land that will be used for mitigation are owned by consulting firm Evergreen Environmental, which will complete the mitigation for the authority. Atlantic City Electric has an easement on the property where electric lines that serve 22,000 customers on Five-Mile Beach are located.