Proposed $67M overpass in jeopardy
by : Jim Hague
Sep 06, 2005 | 2338 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In June, North Bergen township officials and representatives from NJ Transit and the state Department of Transportation were ecstatic over the news that the long-awaited overpass on 69th Street between West Side and Tonnelle avenues - to be built for the last six years - was finally going to happen.

At that time, the state DOT and NJ Transit approved the purchase of the property surrounding the area. They also set aside $11 million to buy the existing property to make sure the overpass at 69th Street would become a reality.

However, the rest of the anticipated funding may not be coming in.

According to Damien Newton, the New Jersey Coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, severe funding woes could prohibit the project - technically called a "grade separation" - from ever even breaking ground.

"All of the money that is currently coming in from the state gas tax is going to cover debt services for past capital improvements," Newton said. "As a result of that, the state needs to find a way to come up with new transportation funds. We believe the problem is that none of these new projects will ever happen. Right now, with this current administration, all state funding is in question. We don't know where the funding will come from."

Newton's organization is an alliance of public interest, transit advocacy, planning and environmental organizations working to reverse deepening automobile dependence and sprawl development in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut metropolitan region. Recently, in conjunction with the North Jersey AAA, they have been trying to stir up some attention to the dilemma with a series of press conferences, like the one the two groups held in North Bergen Thursday morning.

"This is a good project," Newton said. "No one is in opposition of this project. We spoke with the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority and they said that this is what they called a high-priority project. But will it happen without some sort of trust fund? We honestly don't know. We're urging state officers and legislators to come up with a way to fix this problem."

Political slowdown Newton said that his organization has been in contact with local legislators to drum up support.

"But the message we got was that it was an issue to deal with after the lame duck session [the remaining months of Acting Gov. Richard Codey's term] was over," Newton said. "We want to get some public awareness out there, to let the people know that the money for this project has to come from somewhere. No one is willing to talk about it until after the election. We have to drum up some support."

Newton said that his organization has been looking for transportation projects in the state that seemed sound and needed to be moved forward, but have stalled because of the budget crunch.

"We're looking to help out in smart, government-related projects," Newton said. "NJ Transit and the state DOT are aboard, so this is a good project. But you don't want to see it get delayed any longer."

Trains and cars For decades, the area has been a traffic nightmare, caused by the lengthy delays by the freight trains that use the CSX Railroad lines that cut right through the middle of 69th Street. At times, those long freight trains take 20 to 30 minutes to pass through and motorists are forced to sit and wait with no option.

"It's an area with extremely heavy traffic," said William Visser, the executive manager of public and government services for AAA North Jersey. "The congestion there constantly causes terrible traffic problems. We were certainly hopeful that the project would get finished. We didn't think there would be problems. We thought we would see the project get completed in a timely manner. I think everyone thought it was going to happen quickly. Now, to hear that it may or may not happen is quite a shock to us."

That's why AAA North Jersey has joined forces with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign to drum up support. "It's a project that will benefit everyone, and we have to make everyone aware of the fund issues," Visser said. "It was brought to our attention and we're glad to help. We feel this project is very necessary. It's better for everyone - the communities, the businesses, workers who travel in that area."

Newton said that he has reached out to local legislators for support.

"We have a good relationship with the legislators," Newton said. "We don't want to have an adversarial relationship with the legislators. We're not doing this as a hit to the legislators. We're just drawing attention to the fact that it may not happen. We have to come up with a plan that works and is palatable to the public. Most people aren't aware that it might not go through."

Sacco agrees North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, who is also the State Senator representing the 32nd Legislative District, said that Newton's claims are definitely true; the 69th Street overpass project is in jeopardy.

"There is no money set aside for projects like this," Sacco said. "Unless the State Transportation Trust Fund gets renewed, a lot of projects like this won't be built. There is a whole list of projects that won't be funded. So they're right. We have to find a funding source, and no one has decided where that source will be. The current gas tax is not enough. The reality is that many projects will not be built because there is no way that they will be funded and there is no direction as how to proceed."

Sacco said that the dilemma is even tougher now, especially with soaring gas prices.

"A higher gas tax would be politically sensitive right now, with gas prices going so high," Sacco said. "There has to be a way to solve it. The money has to come from somewhere."

A lot of dough When the state DOT and NJ Transit announced plans for the continuation of the overpass, the estimated cost was $67 million. It was expected to begin construction next summer and be completed by the end of 2007, but now, it's anyone's guess.

Newton said that the Tri-State Transportation Campaign is exploring options to raise the necessary $1 billion for transportation projects.

"We're looking beyond the gas tax and into different aspects, like transit fees, vehicle registration, toll increases, container fees for the railroads," Newton said. "We don't want to pigeonhole just one aspect. We do think things have to happen, but we would think spreading out the cost would be a better option."

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