$10 billion toll road expansion plan sparks protests in North Jersey

 billion toll road expansion plan sparks protests in North Jersey

NEW JERSEY – A massive plan to widen the NJ Turnpike in North Jersey is moving forward, but not without significant opposition from supporters and some elected officials.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority plans to spend $10.7 billion to rebuild an 8.1-mile section of the I-78 Turnpike extension, doubling the number of lanes across Newark Bay through Bayonne and Jersey City to the Holland Tunnel.

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The plan was called the Newark Bay-Hudson County Extension Improvements Program. No city, county, state or federal tax dollars will be used to fund the project; instead, it will be funded through toll revenue. The Turnpike Authority’s description of the project can be found here.

The Turnpike Authority says the project will improve safety and ease traffic on the busy highway and will encourage growth at the nearby port system, one of the busiest in the country. Officials expect construction to create more than 25,000 jobs.

But critics of the plan claim the financial waste will increase pollution in several overburdened communities, including many working-class neighborhoods of color. Supporters also claim the multibillion-dollar plan is a poor investment at a time when public transit should be a top priority.

Activists continued their fight against the proposal on Tuesday, gathering in Jersey City to call on Gov. Phil Murphy to stop the plan. The rally came just before an “open house” the Turnpike Authority hosted in the city to discuss the plan.

“The Newark Bay Bridge expansion is considered one of the most expensive highway fiasco projects in the country,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

“Along with the Turnpike Extension, this is a project from the last century… albeit one with a staggering $11 billion cost tag,” O’Malley continued. “The solution to our transportation crisis is not to widen the highways in our cities – it is to invest in public transit and use NJTA dollars to invest more fully in NJ Transit on behalf of transit riders and drivers.”

The need for bridge replacement

According to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the project is a “necessity” on a highway that serves as the state of New Jersey’s official evacuation route — not to mention it’s one of the region’s busiest commuter roads.

The Newark Bay-Hudson County Extension, opened to traffic in 1956, runs from the 14 freeway interchange in Newark to the Jersey Avenue intersection in Jersey City. Almost 80 percent of the roadway is supported by bridges.

This is a problem for the following reasons – and according to officials, expanding the motorway is the solution:

“These 29 structures are in poor condition and require regular, disruptive and costly maintenance just to stay in service. Traffic growth and port-related heavy traffic regularly cause congestion. The Newark Bay-Hudson County Extension Improvements Program will modernize the extension, replace the 29 bridge structures and increase capacity to ensure safety, reduce congestion and support growth in surrounding communities.”

These bridges cannot be rehabilitated due to “significant subsurface problems” and they cannot support the weight of trucks traveling to Port Newark and Elizabeth, the agency points out. See also: Major construction work begins at Port Newark, Elizabeth Terminal

The program consists of four independent projects. The first project – the agency’s “highest priority” – will rebuild the extension between the 14 Interchange in Newark and the 14A Interchange in Bayonne and Jersey City. It will also replace 16 bridges, including the Vincent Robert Casciano Bridge (Newark Bay Bridge), which will be replaced by two new bridges with four lanes in each direction.

Work is expected to begin in 2026 and take eight to ten years, officials say.

Most drivers who use the highway do not go to New York City via the Holland Tunnel, the Turnpike Authority notes. Data shows that nearly 80 percent of eastbound Extension traffic goes to Jersey City (56%), Bayonne (17%) and other parts of Hudson County (6%).

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“Climate Change Denial and Environmental Justice”

According to supporters and several elected officials, there are many reasons to put the plan on hold. One of them is the underlying assumption that building additional lanes will reduce congestion – which they claim is not true.

“The Turnpike Authority’s own analysis would increase traffic volumes compared to an alternative of not building the road at all,” said Corey Hannigan of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

“This is a prime example of climate change denial and environmental injustice,” Hannigan insisted.

Matt Smith of Food & Water Watch said transportation is the “single largest source of climate pollution in New Jersey,” at 34 million tons annually.

“These emissions come largely from cars and trucks, whose exhaust pipes also produce ground-level ozone, a major cause of the extremely high asthma rates in the environmental communities of Newark and Hudson County,” Smith said.

According to Debra Kagan, executive director of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, the project is an “irresponsible investment in the same old approaches that have created the problems we face today.”

“We must shift our transportation funding priorities away from expanding outdated toll roads and toward building reliable transit and infrastructure for safe biking and walking if we are ever to achieve our climate and safety goals in New Jersey,” Kagan argued.

Other supporters criticize the Turnpike Authority’s draft environmental impact statement, which says the project “will not place a disproportionate burden on overburdened communities and will not have adverse environmental or public health impacts.”

“Contrary to the position expressed in the EA, the project will have significant negative environmental impacts for all residents of Newark and Hudson County – but especially our most vulnerable citizens – for generations to come,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wrote in a letter this week.

In the meantime, other elected officials in North Jersey add that it is time to finally consider public transit as a solution to the state’s mobility problems.

“In fact, $10 billion would be better spent on public transportation, because the majority of working families cannot afford to drive their own cars into Manhattan every day and pay for parking,” argues Steven Fulop, Mayor of Jersey City. A consideration that could become even more acute with the possible introduction of a city toll.

“Most people rely on public transportation to get to work. With $10 billion, we can solve our transportation problems across the state while creating the same number of union jobs,” Fulop added.

“There is no doubt that this project will result in more traffic, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It is an extremely poor decision to spend taxpayer money,” agreed Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla.

“Instead of investing billions in expanding the Turnpike without expanding the Holland Tunnel, New Jersey should take a leading role in climate action and put those funds into improving public transit and mitigating the 15 percent fare increase that just went into effect on NJ Transit,” Bhalla said.

“Our focus must be on creating a greener, healthier future for our communities, not on continuing outdated, car-centric infrastructure projects,” he added.

The Turnpike Trap coalition and EmpowerNJ, which led Tuesday’s rally in Hudson County, released a list of other concerns related to the proposal. These include:

  • “A 2020 report commissioned by the NJTA and published by Jacobs Engineering concluded that rehabilitating the bridge would cost about $260 million, one-thirtieth of the cost of rebuilding the bridge.”
  • “There are no studies on transit alternatives or alternatives for freight transport by rail.”
  • “More than 40 environmental and road safety organizations are against the project.”
  • “More than 60 properties need to be acquired from public ownership, but the NJ Turnpike Authority has not yet released the list.”
  • “Public relations were inadequate and most residents do not know about the project.”
  • “Hudson County is currently implementing a Vision Zero action plan and has set a goal to eliminate traffic fatalities. The NJ Turnpike is one of the deadliest roads in the state, with 15,000 accidents per year and 17 fatal crashes in 2023. Widening it would only worsen those statistics.”
Photo: Jennifer Brown

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