The Newark Bay Bridge and the portion of the Turnpike leading to and from the Holland Tunnel would be expanded under a plan opposed by environmental groups and Hudson County residents. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Ever since the New Jersey Turnpike first proposed a multi-billion dollar widening of the portion of the Turnpike that leads to and from the Holland Tunnel, a coalition of community groups, environmental advocates, and others have voiced fierce objections to expanding the heavily trafficked roadway.
During meeting after meeting of the Turnpike’s commissioners, advocates have voiced concerns over the environmental impacts of widening what’s known as the Turnpike extension, saying it would lead to more cars on the road and, in turn, more pollution.
“We live in the cancer corridor of New Jersey with considerable air pollution already,” Lily Zane, a resident of Hoboken for nearly 40 years, told commissioners Tuesday. “We are in a climate crisis. New Jersey needs more green space, not more asphalt, particularly in one of the most flood-prone areas in the state.
The proposed $4.7 billion project to reconstruct and widen the 8.1-mile section of the Turnpike from exit 14 to the Holland Tunnel entrance in Jersey City would be completed in three phases. The project is still in the permitting stages.
The first phase would widen the roadway to four lanes between exit 14 in Newark and exit 14A in Bayonne, including on the Newark Bay Bridge. The second phase would widen the extension from 14A to Columbus Drive in Jersey City from two to three lanes.
The final phase would replace an elevated portion of the roadway in Jersey City from Columbus Drive to Jersey Avenue, keeping the two lanes in each direction.
Authority officials say the plan is needed because the existing roadway dates back to the 1950s and has outlived its life. About 80% of the corridor is carried along elevated structures that are nearing the end of their usable time, they say.
Supporters of the project, who note the extension is choked with traffic daily, dispute critics’ contention that widening the roadway would cause more congestion.
“You can’t cram any more sardines into the can right now,” said Barry Kushnir, a Turnpike official and labor union official who supports widening the extension.
EmpowerNJ, a coalition of environmental groups, submitted a petition in opposition to the project that the Turnpike Authority rejected during its meeting Tuesday. The petition called for the Department of Transportation and Turnpike Authority to comply with Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and requiring state agencies to consider the environmental impacts of projects like the Turnpike widening on overburdened and minority communities. The petition also requested the agencies conduct traffic studies.
The Turnpike Authority denied the petition on the grounds that it’s already complying with the governor’s executive orders.
The agency has said if the project ultimately moves forward, it would begin eminent domain proceedings on as many as 60 properties near the bridge, including potentially the former Marist High School in Bayonne.
Construction is expected to last between 10 and 15 years.
Activists, residents, and other environmental justice groups are sounding the alarm now, before the plan moves any further.
They have a long list of concerns, including an uptick in greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of air quality on Black and brown communities already suffering from environmental racism. The project flies in the face of Murphy’s climate policies, they say, arguing the billions set aside for it should go to public transit.
John Reichman, an attorney and steering committee member of EmpowerNJ, accused supporters of the project of having a direct financial interest in it.
“You look at everyone in and around Jersey City, anyone who cares about the environment, anyone who cares about air pollution, anyone who cares about transportation and planning opposes it. It’s a project out of the 1950s that doesn’t work for 2020,” Reichman told the New Jersey Monitor.
Kushnir lived in Hudson County for more than 50 years and said he’s driven the extension countless times. He’s president of the Hudson County Central Labor Council and works for the Turnpike, but said he was not speaking on behalf of either.
For his entire career working on the Turnpike, there’s been a continual rotation of construction, replacement, and renewal of different parts of the extension, he said. Five years ago, he said, one of the support beams snapped, shutting down the roadway for emergency repairs.
Kushnir noted the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota in 2007, which killed 13 people and injured 145 when the roadway plummeted into the Mississippi River during morning rush traffic. The Newark Bay Bridge was constructed before that bridge.
“It’s a safety concern, primarily, because this bridge needs to be replaced,” he said.
Booming real-estate development across Hudson County is leading to more people using the extension, he added. The bridge and the roadway leading to the Holland Tunnel will need to handle the increased number of commuters without making traffic even worse.
Opponents to the project and many traffic experts argue that building bigger roads can make traffic worse — it’s a well-known phenomenon known as “induced demand.” If the space is there, more cars will use it.
Kushnir called that a “false narrative.”
“This isn’t something that ‘build it and they will come.’ It’s ‘we’re here.’ We need to alleviate the problem,” he said.
Murphy, who has touted New Jersey as a progressive state with landmark environmental justice legislation, has been mum on the proposed Turnpike widening. In a statement to the New Jersey Monitor, a spokesman did not comment directly on the project, but pointed to other policies like increased incentives for vehicle electrification and Murphy’s executive order on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains central to the Murphy administration’s multi-faceted approach to combating the worsening climate crisis while honoring our commitment to overburdened communities, which disproportionately face severe environmental hazards and climate risks,” said spokesman Bailey Lawrence.
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