The federal government and New Jersey took several years and half a billion dollars to plan and build the four-lane highway over two new bridges into Ocean City from Somers Point. Since this beautiful project opened eight years ago, the already massive flow of traffic to and from the Garden State Parkway through Somers Point has increased significantly.
Unfortunately, that four-lane divided highway serving America’s Greatest Family Resort funnels into Laurel Drive — a residential street with a handful of small businesses — to connect to the parkway. Residents have complained for decades about the crush of summer traffic ruining their neighborhood.
Now the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which also operates the parkway, has quietly decided to end the heavy highway traffic through this neighborhood by closing parkway Exit 30 at Laurel Drive. In its place, the adjacent parkway Exit 29 will be turned into a full interchange, allowing drivers to enter or exit in both directions.
Exit 29, right before the toll plaza on the north side of the parkway bridge over Great Egg Harbor, connects to Route 9 — but has only allowed drivers to get on the parkway heading south or get off heading north. Once it’s a full interchange, the Ocean City-bound masses will take Route 9 north for half a mile and turn right onto Mays Landing-Somers Point Road (County 559) to the first bridge of the causeway. It may be about half a mile longer than the direct path through Laurel Drive, but it should be quicker.
Like many good ideas, the $15 million rerouting “to avoid sending dense traffic onto residential Laurel Drive,” as the Turnpike Authority describes it, looks obvious. In fact, it should have been figured out and done in coordination with the opening of the rebuilt Ocean City bridges and causeway in 2012. Taking a coordinated, systemic approach is a basic responsibility of highway planning/operating authorities, and the state already was involved in all these roadways.
The authority hasn’t said when this rerouting will be done. This summer it is starting to reconstruct eight small bridges and widen the shoulders on the parkway between Mileposts 30 and 35 — and improve Exit 30.
That’s right, the exit the authority will close is first being improved — with better lighting and longer lanes for vehicles using it to exit or enter the parkway. This apparent waste of money must mean that the rerouting of traffic between the parkway and Ocean City will take so many years that leaving Exit 30 in its longtime condition would be unbearable. The project starting this summer won’t be completed until 2023. The work being done that will then be undone begs the question: Is this good planning and a prudent use of parkway user tolls (recently increased dramatically)?
The improvement of Exit 29 to reroute Ocean City traffic also threatens to greatly aggravate New Jersey’s worst planning failure in this small group of roads — the building of an excellent pedestrian/bicycle path on the new parkway bridge and then preventing anyone from using it for more than a year so far.
This is especially a shame now, when people across America have responded to COVID-19 restrictions by walking and bicycling much more. Cities in many states have helped them by closing streets to cars to create safer paths for those activities. New Jersey has … still not opened this recreational path.
A decade ago, the state took away the adjacent bicycling route between Atlantic and Cape May counties when it closed and then demolished the Route 9 bridge. The new recreational path with existing connections would be much safer than what cyclists used for decades, even without further improvements. The danger now is that the state will leave the path closed for three, five or more years until all projects in the area are finished.
New Jersey and its Turnpike Authority look like they can’t even coordinate their own projects properly, let alone work with others.