Turnpike Extension Project
Turnpike Extension Project

If you expand the road, more people will come – not less – and those drivers will bring more unwanted exhaust fumes to an already overburdened Jersey City population.

So reasoned a string of citizen environmental organizations at a May 24 meeting of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority at its Woodbridge headquarters. The NJTA offered no rebuttal.

Thus far, the NJTA has been sticking to its plan to widen a section of the Newark Bay/Hudson County Extension between Interchange 14A in Bayonne and the Columbus Drive exit in Jersey City, claiming it will lead to reduced traffic congestion along the approach to the Holland Tunnel.

Will reconfiguring that stretch of roadway achieve that goal? Critics of the proposal, including the City of Jersey City, answer with a resounding no.

In a public statement released earlier this year, Barkha Patel, director of Jersey City’s Department of Infrastructure, writing on behalf of Mayor Steve Fulop, said the project – whose cost is estimated at $4.7 billion – will only exacerbate existing traffic, pollution and noise.

According to published reports, the project would widen the Turnpike Extension and replace elevated structures  in phases: first, between Exit 14 in Newark and 14A in Bayonne, including replacement of the 65-year-old Newark Bay Bridge; second, between 14A and Columbus Drive exit in Jersey City; and third, re-doing the elevated roadway from Columbus Drive to Grand Street.

The 5-mile-long stretch from 14A to 14C would be widened from two to three lanes in each direction, with full shoulders, the NJTA website says.

“In addition to running counter to state, regional and local climate goals, projects that induce additional single-occupancy vehicle driving cannot keep up to provide the necessary capacity to meet growing travel demand,” Patel said.

Moreover, Patel said, “Jersey City residential neighborhoods already see significant traffic destined for the Holland Tunnel using local streets to bypass the congestion on existing highways.

A graphic posted by Safe Streets JC
A graphic posted by Safe Streets JC

“By widening the roadway, starting at Interchange 14 in Newark, we are concerned that additional traffic will be induced to enter Jersey City and continue to use local streets to bypass congestion that will still exist in the approach to the tunnel.”

That outcome, Patel warned, flies in the face of the city’s push for zero traffic fatalities or serious injuries by 2026, fewer vehicle miles traveled, a 400 percent hike in “cycling mode share,” and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

“Please consider a reconstruction and modernization plan that maintains the existing number of travel lanes,” Patel concluded.

Representatives of various citizen action groups, including EmpowerNJ, Safe Streets JC, Bike JC, Sustainable JC, Journal Square Community Association and Harsimus Cove Association, spoke at last month’s NJTA meeting to register their opposition.

Of the approximately 25 speakers, about 10 were from Jersey City.

EmpowerNJ, a coalition of 100-plus environmental, faith and social justice organizations, has filed petitions with the NJTA and N.J. Department of Transportation claiming they’ve failed to comply with executive orders by Gov. Phil Murphy directing state agencies to halve greenhouse gas emissions — for which vehicles account for 40 percent — by 2030 and to factor in environmental equity for minority communities already overtaxed by pollution’s byproducts.

The petitions call on the NJTA to scrap the expansion plan in favor of projects focused on public transit, roadway repairs, and bicycle and pedestrian walkways that won’t produce greenhouse gas emissions.

The petitions also call for the state agencies to do a study assessing how the widening will impact traffic volume and health costs for community residents exposed to carbon and other forms of pollution.

“NJTA should not be spending tens of billions of dollars on highway expansions without a rigorous analysis of whether they are worth the costs,” the petitions say. “NJTA has not shown how its projects would improve traffic congestion.”

John Reichman, a member of Empower NJ’s steering committee, said the NJTA’s “failure to adopt a climate reduction strategy” will shut out the state from applying for a pot of $6 billion in transportation grants available under the federal infrastructure law.

“Expanding the Turnpike extension in Jersey City past our schools, playgrounds, parks and homes is an environmental crime,” said Dr. James Lee, an organizer with Safe Streets JC.

Lee warned that increased levels of exhaust fumes generated by the heavier volume of traffic anticipated from the turnpike extension “will increase already elevated rates of asthma and (will) release toxins into the air and soil ….”

This outcome, Lee said, “is the 2020s equivalent of using lead pipes because it’s convenient. The overflow of traffic onto our local streets will make them less safe and more congested.” Better for the state to invest in mass transit and freight rail, he said, “not continuing to ignore and stomp on our urban communities, especially those who have long suffered under unjust highway expansions and industrial pollution in the past.”

Efforts to get the NJTA to clarify the status and timetable of the project were met with silence, Reichman said. “They haven’t given out a public schedule. It’s pretty much a black box.”

What is known, he said, is that the NJTA has contracted for a preliminary design and environmental review and that 60 properties will have to be acquired to facilitate the widening of the roadway.

So far, the NJTA has started eminent domain proceedings to secure one of those properties in Bayonne. Therefore,  assembling all the pieces before the actual work can start may take a lot of time to complete, he said.

“We’re frustrated by the lack of further opposition to the project by local government, such as a letter of protest from the City Council to Gov. (Phil) Murphy,” Reichman said. “The governor can stop the project tomorrow by issuing an executive order or by vetoing the minutes of the NJTA,” he noted, “so that’s where the most political pressure should be applied.”

Reichman said the DOT and NJTA have until October 12, 2022 to review and respond to the petitions that were filed May 12, 2022.

If and when NJTA is ready to apply for federal and state clean air and water permits to proceed with the project, and if its position hasn’t changed by then, “litigation (by citizen groups) is certainly a possibility” to stop it, Reichman said.

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...