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Tragedy struck hard in the early evening of July 16, 2017, on Route 347, when a Volkswagen heading south along the narrow road crossed over into the northbound lane, slamming head-on into a Chevrolet Monte Carlo.  

The VW careened into the trees, overturning on the way. The mishap proved fatal for one driver, while the other was airlifted to the hospital with severe injuries.

It’s a story told over and over and over in local news outlets, compiled from police reports. Crashes happen. But do they happen more often on the country roads that lead from the busy beach resorts of Cape May County to the entrance of Route 55?

Some evidence says they do. If that’s the case, what can be done about it?

Highway Interrupted

Officials in Cape May County and beyond have for decades advocated for the extension of Route 55 into Cape May County. The road runs from Route 42 in Deptford, just beyond a major, multi-lane highway section where cars flow from Philadelphia onto the north-south route of Interstate 295, and before the start of the Atlantic City Expressway, the other major highway across the state to the South Jersey shore.

While the four-lane expressway is a toll road that runs all the way into its namesake city, the four lanes of Route 55 narrow sharply to a single lane each way in a rural area of Cumberland County before dumping onto Route 47, a road that local officials say was never designed to be a major thoroughfare.

A report prepared for the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization found that crashes in the area near where Route 55 merges with Route 47 are four times the statewide average. Completed in April 2017 by the firm McCormick-Taylor at the cost of about $100,000, the study looked at issues connected to Routes 55, 47 and Route 347, a two-lane road that cuts off a loop of Route 47 through the woods of Dennis Township and Maurice River Township. The eight-and-a-half mile road was created in the 1990s and has been considered a likely route for some future extension of Route 55.

It’s also relatively narrow, without space or dividers between the lanes.

Blame the Road?

Middle Township’s Chief of Police Christopher Leusner does not doubt that the portion of Route 47 in his jurisdiction is more dangerous than other roads.

“There’s not a lot of room for error on that road,” he said in a recent interview. “A little to the left, you’re in the oncoming lane. A little to the right, you’re in the trees or risking a collision with a fixed object.”

In 20 years with the Middle Township police, he’s found the roadway more dangerous than other areas.

Most serious crashes fall into three categories, he said:

* Those caused by driving while intoxicated.

* Those caused by distracted driving, which he said is becoming more prevalent with the advent of smartphones.

*Those caused by excessive speed.

But all of these are exacerbated by a road that sees far more traffic than it was designed to handle.

“It’s a two-lane roadway that I don’t think was designed to handle the level of traffic that it sees in the summertime,” Leusner said. “Then add in that a lot of it is in a rural area.”

Sen. Jeff Van Drew, (D-1st) a proponent of extending Route 55, had similar observations about the roadway in Dennis Township, where he served as mayor.

In a recent interview, he said there are some difficult, treacherous spots along the roadway, which has for many years been one of the major routes in and out of the county.

“The problem is, there’s only so much room on the road,” he said.

What Would Make a Difference?

Van Drew, and Cape May County officials, wants to see Route 55 extended through Cape May County. But all involved acknowledge that would be a tall order.

Any potential route would take the road through miles of wetlands and protected wildlife habitat, and environmental groups have vowed a major fight, even if the state showed interest in moving forward with such a project.

That doesn’t even get to the costs. Van Drew estimated such a project would come in at about a $1 billion, a number far beyond the reach of local governments, or even the state.

He said federal dollars would likely be needed to build the road, much of which would need to be raised to pass through wetlands.

It’s been decades since the Route 55 construction ended. While some in Cape May County continue to fight for more highways, many in Trenton and beyond are just as happy to let Route 55 die.

Still, Van Drew wants to take the next step. He has a bill in the state Senate to authorize the design of an extension project.

He said there’s been enough talk, and more than enough studies: Let’s see what the road would look like. Just that design will likely cost $8 million to $9 million.

Any big project has to start somewhere, and proceed one step at a time, he said. He pointed to the removal of traffic lights on the Garden State Parkway, a long-sought project that took many years to complete. According to Leusner, removing the lights has made a real difference in safety along the section of the Parkway in Middle Township.

But there was little opposition to that work. A Route 55 extension faces far more obstacles, some physical, others political.

Last fall, the director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club said flatly that a Route 55 extension would never happen.

What’s more, Jeff Tittel said the local politicians knew it would never happen, and were using the issue as a political tool. He suggested there are other steps that could be taken to make the highway safer.

"Bring ’em on," said Gerald Thornton, director of Cape May County freeholders.

“I agree with that. I think there are significant changes that we could make on that highway,” Thornton said in a recent interview.

That could include adding a third lane along Route 347. “I absolutely believe we should work with the Sierra Club.”

According to Thornton, it is the human beings using the road who are endangered.

“There are things we can do,” he said. “It’s a long, drawn-out process. But at the same time, when you talk about endangered species or endangering the plants when we use that highway, we are the endangered species.”

It’s a line he uses whenever talking about the road, and it’s one that resonates with local drivers. But he’s willing to look at any options that reduce that danger.

Been there, done that, replied Van Drew, although not in so many words.

In a separate interview, Van Drew said, “I’m willing to look at that. It’s been looked at many times. I’m certainly willing to look at any options.”

He said the Shore Connections Committee came up with a series of recommendations in the 1990s, when he was mayor of Dennis Township and the lone Democrat on the freeholder board.

The Department of Transportation enacted several of the recommendations, including adding variable message signs to inform drivers of alternate routes and current conditions, and other safety measures.

Van Drew does not believe it was enough.

On summer weekends, severe backups continue. That’s an inconvenience for drivers and residents, and may contribute to a dangerous situation, both from driver impatience and from drivers rear-ending other vehicles stopped in traffic.

Safer Than Most

The McCormick-Taylor report includes information from the Department of Transportation on roadway safety, outlined in an Aug. 22, 2016 letter from Pavan Sheth, a project engineer with the DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Data and Safety.

For most of the length of Route 55, and for considerable sections of routes 47 and 347, Seth concludes the sections exhibit a “relatively safe crash record” for roadways of their size and type, as compared to the state average. Particular sections of Route 47 are listed as showing crashes above the state average.

The report includes a grim map, outlining fatal crashes along Routes 47 and 347, including the fatal pedestrian accidents in the Rio Grande portion of the road as it heads into Wildwood, well beyond the merge with Route 55.

Running from 2011 to 2015, the map shows nine fatal crashes involving fixed objects and two fatal head-on collisions. There were also fatal accidents along the route involving pedestrians and bicyclists. The collision listed above took place after the reporting period.

“In general, the majority of the reported crashes occurred in the more congested areas of the corridor, while many of the more severe/fatal crashes occurred in the rural areas,” the report states. “Between 2012 and 2014, nearly half of the reported crashes (48.1 percent) occurred during the summer months when the roadways are more heavily traveled and accommodate significant number of out-of-town motorists.

"Through the Rio Grande area, the crash rate along Route 47 was notably higher than the statewide average crash rate for similar roadways. The documented crashes were mostly congestion related and included many same direction rear-end, side swipe and right angle accidents.”

Route 47, also known as “Delsea Drive” in much of the state, for connecting the Delaware River to the sea, leads from Camden County to Wildwood. The report and almost anyone who has traveled the route, say summer weekends see long delays and serious traffic congestion.

For the most serious accidents, the report cites unsafe speeds and, in one instance, illegal passing as contributing to the accidents.

“There are three sections of Route 47 that have relatively high crash rates compared to statewide averages,” the report read.

It lists the area between mileposts 34.99 and 35.12, which is just south of the Route 55 intersection, where the crash rate is more than four times the statewide average. The report cites summer congestion for the same-direction crashes there.

“The crash rate on Route 47 between mileposts 3.63 to 3.93 is more 1.5 times the statewide average. Similarly, Route 47 between mileposts 3.94 and 4.20 has a crash rate that is more than 2.75 times the statewide average.

"Same direction-rear end, right-angle, and same direction-sideswipe crashes were predominant throughout these segments and can mainly be attributed to the presence of traffic congestion and retail driveways.

“Five pedestrian/bicycle crashes occurred since 2011 within a quarter-mile segment of Route 47 near Bayshore Road, where outside shoulder widths are substandard by nearly two feet,” the report continues.

"Numerous same direction-rear end crashes were reported on the Route 47 southbound approach to Tyler Road during the summer months and may be attributed to traffic congestion as well as the presence of horizontal curves.

"Two pedestrian fatalities were reported in 2012 within a half-mile stretch of Route 47 between mileposts 3.16 and 3.62 in Rio Grande. The fatality at milepost 3.2 occurred just north of the Garden State Parkway ramps and south of Sixth Street, and the fatality at milepost 3.62 occurred in the vicinity of Second Street. It should be noted that both crashes occurred in the evening during dark conditions."

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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