Opponents of the plan to eliminate three traffic signals on the Garden State Parkway are asking for long-term assurances that the $125 million project will not lead to new tolls.
Adding tolls had been discussed as far back as the early 1990s for a project first envisioned in 1961, but a spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates the parkway, said it has no plans to add them.
NJTA spokesman Thomas Feeney said that includes not only the parkway but the new interchanges being constructed where signals are being eliminated at Shell Bay Avenue, Stone Harbor Boulevard and Crest Haven Road in Middle Township.
“There are no plans to add tolls to that section,” Feeney said.
That is not exactly the written guarantee Russell Down, who lives east of the parkway and next to the project, wants.
Down, who recently approached the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders about the issue, has been a vocal opponent of clearing 26 acres of trees for the project. He wants the freeholders to get it in writing that there would be no new tolls for at least 30 years.
“We can secure guarantees,” Down said.
Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said he had not heard of any plan to add tolls but noted that the county supports the project. He said the traffic lights have led to fatal accidents over the years.
“There is going to be disruption, because it’s a major project. The end result should make it worth it, because safety is the major issue,” Thornton said.
County Engineer Dale Foster recalled new tolls being discussed more than 20 years ago but said the current agreement between the county and the authority, needed because county land will be used for some of the new interchanges, does not mention new tolls.
The toll issue is one of several Down is pursuing. He also argued due process was not followed with public notifications on the project.
“The rules have been bent beyond recognition, if not broken,” Down said.
The authority held a hearing Oct. 4 on its plan to remove 26 acres of trees for the project to create diversionary roads during construction. Though the authority plans to replant 19 acres after the work is completed, Down objected to the timing of the hearing, because the public comment period under the Coastal Area Facility Review Act permit ended Oct. 4. The CAFRA period is a time to comment on environmental issues.
“The public was told about the deforestation, and midnight that night was the CAFRA deadline,” said Down. “There was no time to respond. How then is environmental justice to prevail for our woodlands?”
Under federal requirements, Down argued a new environmental assessment should have been done, taking into account the deforestation. He said the original assessment did not show 26 acres of deforestation.
Foster said a contract for the project was awarded only conditionally, as it still must satisfy federal officials. The U.S. Highway Administration is paying for 20 percent of the project. The state is funding the rest partly through money garnered from a toll increase on the parkway.
It was determined that the original environmental assessment remains valid because from the beginning the areas where trees will be removed were listed as “an area of disturbance,” Foster said.
“The area of disturbance did not change. It didn’t have the trees being removed, but it had disturbance. It’s a definition,” Foster said.
Feeney said the assessment was completed in 2011 and approved in April 2012 with no significant change to the footprint since then. He said the deforestation area changed from 19.9 acres to 26.03 acres, but only because of changes in the way the impact was calculated and not “because the number of trees being removed was increased.” Feeney said some areas with a shrubby habitat were reclassified as forest. He said a grid was placed on a map of the site, and if a single tree was in a grid, the entire grid was reclassified as forest.
Elaine Scattergood, a resident of Avalon and member of a group called the Old Growth Forest Network, opposes any loss of trees. She said the trees protect nearby residents from noise and pollution from parkway traffic.
“There’s no way you can plant a couple saplings and replace a forest that has taken years to grow. Find another way for people to get to their destination without taking out all those trees,” Scattergood said.
Officials have said they will conduct noise studies after the project is completed to see whether noise barriers are needed.
Down also said Hurricane Sandy damaged the old railroad bed in the nearby salt marsh slated for wetlands creation to mitigate 3.5 acres of wetlands being filled in for the project. He said the storm filled the site with sand.
Feeney said the wetlands mitigation already had been approved at two sites and is included in state Department of Environmental Protection and Coast Guard permits for the project.
Thornton said that to his knowledge the authority has complied with all permitting requirements.
The project will start any day now, Feeney said.
“The construction contract was awarded at the December commissioner’s meeting. The governor’s veto period has expired. There are likely going to be shovels in the ground this month,” Feeney said.
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