CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Work is finally under way to eliminate three Garden State Parkway traffic signals, and the agency that operates the highway said longstanding problems at several other interchanges could be addressed soon.

John Withers, supervising engineer for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, spoke Thursday at Cape May County’s annual Transportation Infrastructure Conference. While Withers spoke, heavy equipment was working nearby removing 26 acres of trees and constructing a new access road for the $125 million project to remove signals at Crest Haven Road, Stone Harbor Boulevard and Shell Bay Avenue. It is a project first envisioned in 1961.

“We’re very close. There’s light at the end of the tunnel and we hope it’s not a train,” Withers said.

He also said the authority doesn’t intend to stop there. It’s already planning an $8 million project at Exit 0, where the parkway abruptly ends in a tricky merger with Route 109. It has been the scene of numerous fatal accidents that eventually resulted in the demolition of a house motorists kept running into when the highway ended.

“Our schedule is to award a design contract in two or three months. It would start in the fall of 2014 and take nine months to one year,” Withers said.

The project includes a new traffic signal, jughandles and warnings lights for motorists that the parkway is ending.

Withers said the authority is also aware of other exits that were never made into full interchanges, such as Exit 6 to North Wildwood and Exit 20 in Ocean View.

“We want a full interchange at 20. In the past we made partial interchanges and they’ve been problematic. There is still a need for other interchange improvements, but there is a pecking order,” Withers said.

One thing is clear: The authority is spending significant money in Cape May County. Withers also outlined a $280 million project about to get under way to refurbish the northbound parkway bridge over Great Egg Harbor and Drag Channel, replace the southbound span, and demolish the Beesley’s Point Bridge. Bids for the contract were received Thursday morning.

“They’ll start in May or June and complete it in mid-2016. It could be earlier. It depends on contractors and the weather,” Withers said.

In an earlier speech, state Department of Transportation Assistant Commissioner Richard Hammer said almost $900 million has been spent on transportation projects in the county by the DOT and NJTA since 2005.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said the investment has “been staggering,” but Van Drew also put in a plug to consider extending Route 55 to the shore. It now ends at Maurice River Township in Cumberland County. Van Drew acknowledged there are environmental concerns, as the last 20 miles or so of the roadway would cross a lot of wetlands.

“You could have a raised elevated highway. It’s a very difficult challenge. It doesn’t mean we should give up on it,” Van Drew said.

Cumberland County Freeholder Sam Fiocchi said he would propose a resolution supporting the project in his county and urged the Cape May County Freeholders to do likewise.

“It would help your tourism industry and economic development in Cumberland County,” Fiocchi said.

The conference was held in Cape May County but included updates of projects throughout the region, including new parkway bridges over Bass River and the Mullica River, a new bridge to Long Beach Island, a parkway widening project from milemarker 80 to at least 35 and possibly to 30, new seating on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry vessels, improvements to Atlantic City International Airport and many others.

Hammer said the state is making road and bridge progress. In 2010, he said, only 50 percent of the pavement on state roads was deemed acceptable but it is now up to 59 percent. In 2010 the state had 323 deficient bridges but the figure is now at 293.

“There is only one structurally deficient bridge in Cape May County and that’s the Route 50 Tuckahoe River crossing, and it’s going to construction later this spring. Cape May County will be the only county in the state with no structurally deficient state bridges,” Hammer said.

“We have a bridge or two we would sell to you,” said Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey.

Hammer said the focus is on existing roads and bridges and that is why he doubted there would be funding any time soon for a Route 55 extension.

“I’m not saying Route 55 isn’t a great idea,” he noted.

Withers said the parkway is an existing road and it took years to get federal permits to eliminate the traffic lights.

“Permitting on a brand new road is next to impossible. It’s very difficult to get anything new built,” Withers said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711