CREST HAVEN – A question about Route 55 raised at a meeting of Cape Issues, a citizens’ group that meets at the Herald building, moved Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton to act.
As a result, the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization agreed to perform a $99,000 study of Routes 55, 47 and 347 to learn what might be done to improve safety and reliability to the entrances and exits of Cape May County. A kick-off meeting was held Aug. 11 at the county Administration Building.
Thornton took the podium to address about 30 officials from Cape May and Cumberland counties, which share those highways. He likened the prospect to a quarter-century struggle to rid Garden State Parkway of three traffic signals in Middle Township. Those signals were the cause of many accidents that caused injuries while some resulted in deaths.
Those signals are a memory having been replaced with three overpasses that speed travelers along their way.
"This is really an exciting project for us, both Cumberland and Cape May counties," said Thornton. He noted the Cape Issues group's query and added, "I've been around a long time, and I've seen a lot of studies. We studied Route 55. It has been around a long time. Environmentalists came out and raised a lot of hell with us regarding the impact on the environment. We talked about using the old rail beds coming part of the way down," he said.
He told of asking County Engineer Dale Foster to uncover and review the most recent Route 55 study, done in the 1990s.
"We looked at the number of accidents and fatalities and injuries. I will tell you, if nothing else, we have to find some way to make that entryway and exit into South Jersey much, much safer," he continued.
"Maybe this is the beginning," he added, and again cited the parkway traffic signal battle.
"This is one of those projects. If we're strong enough and tenacious enough then we can accomplish something. That's what we have to do; it's an absolute necessity that we address this issue, not only from a safety standpoint but from a transportation standpoint.
"To Cape May County those roads are harmful to us as far as our industry. Our industry is tourism. We do more than $6 billion a year in tourism, and I can tell you first-hand, when I had my own business, and I had meetings every Friday in Mount Holly and Hainesport, if I didn't get out of there by 3 o'clock it was a nightmare getting home," Thornton said.
He cited half hour to 45-minute delays in traffic. "That has an impact on our economy. It's very important for all of us in Cape May and Cumberland from a safety standpoint," he concluded.
Kenneth Burkhardt, an engineer, and associate with McCormick Taylor which is performing the study gave an overview of what the first meeting was to accomplish.
The group then recessed to the lobby of the building. In smaller clusters, officials pored over large maps of the routes that were highlighted on tables. Each group voiced concerns such as safety, traffic congestion, environmental concerns, residents' concerns and emergency response and incident management.
From information gathered at the meeting, as well as from accident data studied from those corridors, McCormick Taylor will proceed with an online public survey, then a draft "Purpose and Need Statement."
The final one of those is targeted for winter 2016-2017, Burkhardt said.