HAMMONTON — Vacationers wrapping up their weekend trips at the Jersey Shore know all too well what awaits them heading home on the Atlantic City Expressway — those maddening summer traffic jams.
“Anybody traveling westbound on Sunday nights, sitting in traffic, is aware there are several bottlenecks,” said Kevin Rehmann, a spokesman for the expressway’s operating agency, the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
Memorial Day weekend is usually when backups begin on the busy toll road, but motorists may be in for a pleasant surprise during the holiday this year. The expressway is putting the final touches on a $58 million widening project to ease congestion on a 24-mile stretch often clogged with summer traffic.
The project has added a third lane on the westbound side from Exit 7 to Exit 31. It culminates nearly five years of construction done in three stages. The first phase began in 2009 at the expressway’s merge point with the Garden State Parkway at Exit 7 in Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County.
Contractors have been working their way westbound since then. They are completing the last piece, between milepost 25 in Hammonton and the expressway’s intersection with Route 73 at Exit 31 in Winslow Township, Camden County. Work is expected to be done by the Memorial Day weekend.
“It looks like we’re going to be on time and on budget,” Rehmann said. “The goal was always to have it open for Memorial Day traffic, and it looks like we’re going to make it.”
The westbound project complements a similar widening along a 30-mile stretch on the eastbound side, completed in 1988 at a cost of $29.4 million. Expressway officials hope vacationers will now enjoy smoother trips not only when they arrive at the shore, but also during the mass exodus heading home after the weekends are over.
“The primary reason is to relieve the traffic congestion,” Rehmann said.
One tourism analyst noted that more than 90 percent of the visitors arrive in Atlantic City and other shore destinations by car, so highway trips are a key part of summer vacations. Simply put, all that fun in the sun could be spoiled by memories of traffic jams arriving at the shore or heading home, he stressed.
“The front end and the back end of vacations are going to be remembered more than anything in between. You have to enhance the bookends,” said Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
Posner said the expressway’s widening may erase memories of the old traffic jams and allow Atlantic City to make “a first impression twice,” especially for visitors traveling by car.
“If you look at the modes of entry into Atlantic City, and the entire South Jersey shore, the proportion of traffic that comes via the roadways is greater and greater than it has ever been,” he said. “The amount of individual cars is probably approaching 92, 93 or 94 percent of the arrivals in Atlantic City, not to mention Cape May and Long Beach Island. So much of that traffic is carried by the expressway.”
While alleviating traffic congestion is the top priority, the widening project may also create opportunities for more economic development in the towns surrounding the expressway.
“It might not be a major catalyst, but it could help. Every little bit helps,” Hammonton Mayor Steve DiDonato said of the possibility of new development in his town spurred by the road project.
The expressway will celebrate its 50th anniversary on July 31. Hoping to underscore the expressway’s benefits for the surrounding region over the years, the South Jersey Transportation Authority has commissioned an economic impact study. The findings are expected to be released in June.
About 52.1 million vehicles used the expressway last year, once again making it the most heavily traveled entryway into Atlantic City. However, traffic volume fell 2 percent in 2013, a decline blamed on the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy and competition from casinos in surrounding states.
Traffic volume has continued to slip through the first four months of 2014, down nearly 5 percent compared to the same period last year, figures show.
The summer months are the busiest for the expressway, coinciding with Atlantic City’s peak tourism season.
Contact Donald Wittkowski: