Airport Circle

Heavy traffic flows slowly through the airport circle, Thursday Nov. 29, 2012, in Egg Harbor Township. The redesigned circle opened a year ago. (The Press of Atlantic City/Staff Photo by Michael Ein)

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — In the planning stages for years, a proposed $40 million to $50 million connector route to link the Atlantic City Expressway with Atlantic City International Airport is now officially on hold because there is no money to build it.

The South Jersey Transportation Authority, the state agency that owns the expressway and airport, said there is no construction timetable for the project, although it has not been scrapped altogether.

“The entire connector project to link the Atlantic City Expressway with Atlantic City International is on hold due to lack of financing,” authority spokesman Kevin Rehmann said.

Preliminary drawings of the project unveiled in 2011 showed a series of new ramps and overpasses to directly connect the expressway with the airport. Currently, expressway motorists must get off at Exit 9 in Egg Harbor Township to access the airport a short distance away.

The next phase of the connector project has also been delayed indefinitely. Construction was supposed to begin in the spring on new bypass routes to help ease congestion at the airport traffic circle in Egg Harbor Township. Plans called for a new ramp north to Tilton Road and a two-lane access road east of the circle to link with Delilah Road.

The new ramp and access road would have replaced Amelia Earhart Boulevard, the main entryway to the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center, the area’s largest federal employer with a total of about 3,000 government and contractor workers.

In the meantime, the transportation authority continues negotiations to acquire the land needed for the ramp and roadway to bypass Amelia Earhart Boulevard, Rehmann said.

When the expressway-airport connector was conceived years ago, the idea was to funnel traffic between two of the Atlantic City area’s major transportation facilities. But declining traffic volumes and toll revenue on the expressway, caused by Atlantic City’s travel slump in the past few years, have created funding shortages for the project.

“Now that we have less traffic, we don’t have the same immediacy for the project,” Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said. “We did not know there was a major shortage in funding, but it is obvious the expressway is not taking in the financing that it used to.”

Since peaking at $82.2 million in 2009, expressway toll revenue has declined in three of the past four years. Record revenue posted in 2009 followed a toll increase that began in late 2008. Expressway motorists paid $76.1 million in tolls last year, off nearly 2 percent from the $77.6 million in revenue collected in 2012.

The toll revenue decline mirrored the nearly 2 percent decrease in expressway traffic in 2013. Altogether, nearly 52.1 million vehicles traveled the expressway last year, compared to 53 million in 2012.

The sluggish economy and competition from casinos in surrounding states have driven down Atlantic City tourism from a peak of nearly 35 million visitors in 2006 to fewer than 27 million in 2013. As the primary artery to the Atlantic City casinos, the expressway’s fortunes are closely tied to the gambling industry. The city’s casino revenue has fallen seven years in a row, including a 6 percent decline in 2013, to $2.86 billion.

Now, the expressway’s revenue decline has cast doubt about the connector project. Supporters insist the project will be needed eventually to accommodate the region’s anticipated growth. One positive sign is the airport’s higher passenger volume this year generated by new service from United Airlines and Spirit Airlines.

“(While) we may not need that today, we’re going to need that in the future,” said Sam Donelson, who oversaw the connector project when he formerly served as acting executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority. “It’s a costly venture, but something needs to be accomplished.”

The airport traffic circle serving Tilton Road, Delilah Road and Amelia Earhart Boulevard was rebuilt by the county in 2011 as a preliminary step for the expressway-airport connector. The $5 million reconstruction replaced the old circle with a series of new signs, signals and travel lanes, but motorists complained about delays and a confusing traffic flow.

Levinson defended the circle’s redesign. Citing police reports, he said there has been a 36 percent decline in the number of traffic accidents at the circle, with most of the crashes relatively minor and none fatal.

“With all the naysayers of the reconfiguration, it is a safer circle,” Levinson said. “It takes a longer time to get around it and through it, but it is safer.”

Levinson blamed the congestion largely on “impatient drivers” from the FAA’s Tech Center rushing into the circle off Amelia Earhart Boulevard and blocking the intersection.

“If people would be a little more courteous and a little less impatient, that problem would stop,” he said.

The FAA released a statement Wednesday saying that the Tech Center is working with county officials and the South Jersey Transportation Authority on options for handling peak traffic demands at the circle.

“The Technical Center’s Capacity, Modeling & Analysis Group, which normally conducts airport studies, has been looking at ways to improve traffic flows at the circle,” the statement said.

Rush hour is particularly hectic for the circle. In addition to the 3,000 government and contractor employees pouring out of the Tech Center, another 1,000 to 1,500 workers from other state and federal agencies are based on the airport property.

Rehmann, the South Jersey Transportation Authority spokesman, said it will require collaboration among the county, state and federal agencies to solve the funding shortages that have delayed construction of the circle’s bypass routes.

“All of the different agencies have to contribute,” Rehmann said.

Levinson, however, maintained that the county “did our part” by rebuilding the circle in the first place. He added that the county is willing to talk to the transportation authority and work in partnership on the next phase of construction.

“It’s the responsibility of the SJTA, not the county,” Levinson said. “But we’re committed to helping out, for sure.”

Eventually, Levinson sees the circle’s bypass ramp and roadway getting built.

“I have every confidence that it will eventually get done, as soon as the money is available,” he said.

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