First phase of Garden State Parkway widening project finished in time for Memorial Day wyeekend

First phase of Garden State Parkway widening project finished in time for Memorial Day weekend

Published: Wednesday, May 25, 2011, 5:16 PM     Updated: Thursday, May 26, 2011, 2:28 PM
Andrew Mills/The Star-LedgerNorthbound traffic flows on the Garden State Parkway at milemarker 70 in Waretown an area of the highway which was recently widened. For the past two years, construction along a 17-mile stretch of the Garden State Parkway between Toms River and Long Beach Island has created traffic nightmares for motorists — especially during the summer when the highway has become a virtual parking lot. But just in time for the Memorial Day weekend, officials have opened a newly built third lane between mile posts 80 and 63, marking completion of the first phase of a widening project designed to ease congestion. The $225 million project added a third lane in each direction which officials say will allow traffic to flow more smoothly.

“People going down the shore for the Memorial Day weekend will have an extra lane,” said Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates the parkway.

The project, in the works for nearly two years, also adds shoulders to the roadway, which State Police say will make it safer for them and other motorists. The absence of shoulders has forced police cruisers, family sedans and other vehicles to pull over onto the grass in case of a traffic stop or emergency.

“The addition of shoulders is going to be a huge improvement on safety,” said Lt. Eric Heitmann, traffic safety officer for the State Police Troop B, which patrols the parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike.

The Memorial Day holiday is always a high-volume weekend on New Jersey’s two toll roads, Heitmann said. And with the economy improving, AAA is predicting a 0.2 percent increase in the number of people who will travel at least 50 miles by car over the three-day holiday despite high gas prices.

Phase II of the widening project will extend the third lane for another 15 miles south, a $358 million project that will also include grading and drainage work.

But not everyone thinks wider is better.

Steve Lanset, a volunteer with the New Jersey Sierra Club, appeared before the turnpike authoriity board during its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, saying in essence that if you build it, more will come.

“Traffic normally expands to fill the roads,” Lanset said. “And of course, it creates more potential for human health because of air pollution.”

Rather than widening roads, Lanset urged the board’s chairman, state transportation Commissioner James Simpson, to expand mass transit options, including bus service.

“We believe it’s time for the turnpike authority to think about and protect our future,” Lanset said.

But Simpson said later that roadway expansions are not necessarily offset by subsequent increases in volume. For example, during the 1990s, he said, traffic at Exit 8A on the turnpike was consistently backed up for 20 minutes, but an expansion of the interchange has eliminated those delays.

Previous coverage:

• Race to finish Parkway widening before Memorial Day could lead to construction delays