Exit 41 of the Garden State Parkway is one of the strangest configurations you'll ever encounter.
A remnant of a time when traffic on the roadway was much lighter than it is today, the combination exit and rest area has drivers crisscrossing to move between the parkway and Jimmie Leeds Road in Galloway Township.
You won't see anything like this setup at any other rest area, or any other exit, on the parkway.
So the fact that the New Jersey Turnpike Authority is spending $25 million to reconfigure Exit 41 to create full north and south access to the parkway from Jimmie Leeds Road (and will spend the same amount to build a full interchange at nearby Exit 44) should be good news to commuters.
Instead, many Galloway residents are upset that the new layout of the exit will mean they can no longer easily access the rest area or its gas station, restaurant or commuter parking lot.
And they are more upset that the Turnpike Authority didn't hold a local public hearing about the project until the plan was, as the authority's chief engineer, Rich Raczynski, said Monday afternoon, "set in stone." Right or wrong, residents should have had a chance to voice their opinions before the design was finalized.
Raczynski was speaking at Richard Stockton College to nearly 100 residents who attended a hearing on the project. The meeting had originally been set for the week before, but was rescheduled at the last minute.
Not surprisingly, this all comes across as another misstep by an out-of-touch Turnpike Authority, the same folks who built the wasteful "anti-terrorist" fence near the Great Egg Harbor Bay bridge - now mostly gone but not forgiven - and decimated the beautiful trees in the parkway median. Authority officials failed to come up with a believable explanation for either of those moves.
The authority seems continually to be surprised at just how important the parkway is to residents of Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties. For many, the road is a lifeline, connecting small communities to workplaces, shopping and recreation. People who travel the southern stretches of the roadway daily have a pride of ownership in its condition.
And they understand its importance to local economies. That's why some of them used the Monday hearing to push for a full interchange at Exit 40, where the parkway crosses the White Horse Pike.
To be fair, major traffic reconfigurations rarely please everyone. And the authority has made a serious commitment to making improvements to the parkway's southern lanes. In 2013, a project to replace the southbound span of the Great Egg Harbor Bay bridge will begin. A two-year project to rebuild exits 9, 10 and 11 in Cape May County - replacing the only traffic lights on the parkway - is expected to get under way soon.
But that's all the more reason for Turnpike Authority officials to build a better relationship with southern New Jersey residents and make every effort to listen to - and respond to - their concerns.