A state agency that has successfully run a toll road for decades will now try to help push Route 55 through Cape May County.
While discussions are preliminary, the South Jersey Transportation Authority, or SJTA, is apparently willing to offer financial and technical support for the project.
SJTA Executive Director Bart Mueller said Monday that his agency, which operates the Atlantic City Expressway, will meet next month with New Jersey transportation and environmental officials, state legislators and other parties to discuss ways to make the project a reality. Part of that may involve making the final stretch of the roadway between its southern terminus at Port Elizabeth in Cumberland County and its eventual end point in Cape May County a toll road, he said.
"We have the technical expertise," Mueller said, adding the SJTA is a financially solvent operation. "We do happen to run a toll road. It's a no-brainer. I'm excited. My entire team is excited."
Route 55 was for years considered a road to nowhere, as its original section only ran between Port Elizabeth, where the four-lane highway converts to the two-lane Route 47, and its northern terminus in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, where it hooks up with Routes 40 and 47. A second section eventually stretched north to Route 42 in Gloucester County.
However, the southernmost section through Cape May County went unbuilt, the victim of rising construction costs and significant environmental obstacles. Transportation officials say the final stretch of Route 55 could cost as much as $1 billion and may have to be built as an elevated highway to span environmentally sensitive areas.
That has not stopped elected officials, tourism groups and other organizations from repeatedly trying to build the southern section as a way to get motorists more safely and quickly to and from Cape May County's shore resorts. They repeatedly contend that Route 47, which has mile-long traffic backups on weekends during the height of the summer tourist season, is unacceptable.
According to Mueller, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, will lead the latest effort to get Route 55 extended through Cape May County.
Part of that will involve reviewing legislation to enable the project, which would be proposed by Van Drew and his district's Democratic assemblymen, Matt Milam and Nelson Albano, he said. Officials from the state departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection also are expected to attend the meeting next month, he said.
State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Phalon said the department is committed to working with state and local officials to "determine the feasibility of the Route 55 extension."
"We have not initiated any recent studies, nor have we committed to extend the roadway," she said.
Taking on the Route 55 project would be a major endeavor for the SJTA, which also operates Atlantic City International Airport, some parking garages and various shuttle services in southern New Jersey. This year's $270 million capital budget is the agency's biggest ever.
However, Mueller said, part of SJTA's duties is to help build economic development in Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties through transportation projects.
"We're a natural stakeholder," he said.
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