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Quiet Maurice River Township, a rural stretch of Cumberland County along the Delaware Bay runs from the meandering loops of the Maurice River to the Cape May County border, has long been home to a political stalemate.

There, amid the thick woods of that township, Route 55 meets Route 47 and ends.

Back in the 1950s, officials envisioned the freeway leading from Philadelphia to Cape May, a match to the Atlantic City Expressway. But while that toll road was completed in 1965, the four-lane highway that became Route 55 was built in fits and starts, with the most recent section completed in 1989, ending with a merge of a four-lane highway onto a two-lane country road.

Numerous studies, including one in the 1990s, concluded that further extension of Route 55 would require disrupting too many wetlands.

Since then, there has been a low but steady call for the completion of the roadway from Cape May County, where many see the extension of the road as a vital part of economic development, a cure for crippling summer traffic backups, and a potential evacuation route from major storms.

Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1st) says he hopes to move that stalemate. But it won’t be easy.

Biggest of Big Lifts

Van Drew, a Democrat representing New Jersey’s First Legislative District, has introduced legislation to design the continuation of Route 55 into Cape May County.

In a recent interview, Van Drew, of Dennis Township, said there had been more than enough studies on extending Route 55. The current situation is dangerous, and should change, he said.

“I think we’re done with studies, to be honest with you. We should move to the design phase,” Van Drew said. “Let’s see what it would really look like.” 

None of the possible options will be easy, he said, but that doesn’t mean giving up.

Right now, his bill is in front of the Senate Transportation Committee and will have to go in front of the Budget Committee as well, before it could reach the floor for a vote of the full body.

A matching Assembly version would face a similar process before it could reach the governor’s desk. Van Drew doesn’t see much of a chance of that happening before New Jersey has a new governor. Gov. Chris Christie is finishing his last term, so it’s likely that the decision would fall to Democrat Phil Murphy, seen as the odds-on favorite in November, or Republican candidate Kim Guadagno. That’s if Van Drew’s bill ever makes it that far.

Van Drew has often described a piece of legislation that will be tough to pass as a “big lift.”

“I would say (Route) 55 is the biggest of the big lifts,” he said.

His legislative partners, Assemblymen Bruce Land and Robert Andrzejczak, have introduced parallel legislation. This November, all three face Republican challengers, including Mary Gruccio for Senate, and James Sauro and Robert Campbell for Assembly.

Dead, but Not Buried

On most summer Saturdays, cars back up for miles merging onto Route 55. Residents along Route 47 know better than to try to hit the grocery store on weekends, or else be prepared for a long wait.

A study completed earlier this year for the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization (SJTPO) stated there are delays of up to 45 minutes to head south through Dennisville on a summer weekend.

This has been the case for decades. A report in 2000 by The New York Times reporter Laura Mansnerus, said much the same thing, described what she called at that time an attempt to raise the Route 55 extension from the dead after local Republican lawmakers pushed a non-binding resolution seeking to re-open talks on Route 55.

But for something that’s been dead for a generation, the idea of extending Route 55 into Cape May County has never quite been buried.

Safety’s THE Issue

Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton, who helped push for the recent SJTPO study, said it’s not about traffic. It’s about lives.

“This is a safety issue. That’s it,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s 100 percent about safety.”

The report, completed for just under $100,000 by the firm of McCormick Taylor, detailed several accidents along Routes 47, 347 and 55, describing a combination of high speeds, traffic backups, and drivers seeking to get around delays through residential neighborhoods.

The report also cited delays to emergency vehicles, harming response times. It also indicated that matters are likely to get worse. Thornton is a Republican, as is everyone on the county’s governing body. He said he welcomes anything Van Drew can do to get things moving.

No action likely soon

Regardless of Van Drew’s bill, the state Department of Transportation says there may be ways to improve the situation, but there are no plans to continue Route 55.

Responding to a request for an interview, DOT spokesman Daniel Triana said such a project has been discussed for decades and presents big environmental and engineering challenges.

“NJDOT has previously studied the Route 55/Route 47 corridor including a proposed extension of Route 55. There are many issues which would need to be addressed, including property acquisition and the fact that the area is some of the most environmentally sensitive in the state,” he wrote in an emailed response to a request for comment.

“There are more pressing needs, and with the limited funds available for the many projects throughout the state, nothing is planned at this time," he continued.

Triana added that the state would continue to look at ways to improve the congestion problem, and has installed new lights. Message signs were put in place for the summer.

“To say they’re just not going to do anything, shame on them. Shame on them,” said Thornton. “Traffic safety is a serious issue.”

Which Way Could It Go?

Neither Thornton nor Van Drew wanted to propose a specific route to take Route 55 into Cape May County. The most common suggestion would run it about 20 miles into Middle Township to connect with the Garden State Parkway.

State officials say the entire area is thick with protected wetlands and endangered species. Thornton’s response is that human beings are the endangered species in this instance.

But even the SJTPO’s McCormick Taylor report, completed in April, raises the issue. The area studied falls within the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) zone, and a large part is protected pinelands. That would add two state agencies required to give approval for any project to move forward.

Freshwater wetlands abound in the area as well, with further environmental protections. Add threatened and endangered species, open space set aside by both the state and the county, Green Acres lands, migratory birds, and just to round things out, hazardous waste contaminated sites, and a picture of just how big a lift this could be begins to emerge.

“These environmental issues present a unique challenge that must be considered with the safety, and operational issues identified,” states the report. 

According to Van Drew, many in Trenton oppose extending Route 55, as do many environmental groups, at the local, state, national and even international level. They’ve “used their muscle,” as he put it, to keep Route 55’s end where it is.

“It makes it a very challenging issue,” Van Drew said.

Lined Up For And Against

“People, I get it. There are problems,” said Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey’s chapter of the Sierra Club. “The thing is, a Route 55 extension is just not going to happen.”

Such a project is extremely unlikely to ever get the needed permits, and even if it did, environmental groups, including his, would sue to stop it. But he argues that the reason the proposal never goes away entirely is political.

According to Tittel, it’s not transportation planning that keeps the idea alive, but elected officials are seeking to impress voters.

“In all the years that they’ve been fighting to try to bring back 55, we could have come up with alternatives that would work, without the massive cost and the massive destruction of the environment,” Tittel said. “I find it shameful. They want to hold people hostage to traffic.”

He said the Sierra Club understands the need for effective, safe transportation, but suggested upgrades to the existing roads could be a better answer.

He also suggested other ideas, such as staggering the rental change-over days, so that the barrier islands would not empty out every Saturday, with new renters flocking in the same afternoon.

This approach has worked in other areas, he said. Instead, he said, some local politicians continue to hold out for a big highway project.

Not Just Environment

The roadway design would not be cheap. Van Drew estimated the design alone would cost about $8 million. Building a road would cost far, far more. Think billions, not millions.

Van Drew did not want to offer much about potential routes, saying that was part of the design phase and he didn’t want to take anything off the table. But he suggested the possibility of a raised roadway because it could cross wetlands, adding more cost and engineering challenges. 

Difficult projects can be accomplished, with perseverance, both Thornton and Van Drew said.

Van Drew cited several projects that took decades and were seen as almost impossible, including replacing the lights on the Middle Township section of the Garden State Parkway, the creation of the Cape May County campus of the Atlantic Cape Community College, and the still-underway work on bridges connecting Atlantic and Cape May counties on the Parkway.

“The difference between success and failure is persistence,” Van Drew said.

Establishing a Problem

The SJTPO study is called a “purpose-and-need statement.” It does not advocate for a particular solution, just states that there is something wrong.

In an earlier interview, Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said Thornton pushed for the study based on the number of people hurt or killed since the last study was completed in 2003.

The SJTPO helps plan regional transportation projects and is part of the process for federal funding. There is the potential that Washington could help fund those billions, not millions if a project is ever to get off the ground.

“With any federal project, you need a problem statement, and that’s what they generated,” Foster said. “While the ‘purpose and need’ doesn’t necessarily dictate building 55, the purpose is to identify that there is a problem and show that there is a need to address it.”

Foster said the goal is to raise awareness in Trenton of the safety issues.

But neither the recent report nor the SJTPO specifically endorses extending Route 55.

“There are a lot of concerns and a lot of competing priorities,” said Jennifer Marandino, executive director of the SJTPO.

The most recent study outlines the problems but offers no answers. “We’re not endorsing any specific recommendations,” she said.

Both Marandino and Triana point out that things have happened in the decades since work stopped on Route 55.

“There’s no documented plan for extension. But what they have done have been lower cost improvements they could implement cheaper and quicker,” Marandino said.

Haunted highway?

By 2040, the McCormick Taylor report states, things are likely to get worse along the routes leading to Route 55, with longer delays, more backups, and more crashes.

But with or without an extended Route 55, traffic delays on summer Saturdays are a fact of life throughout Cape May County.

The four lanes of Route 55 were completed through the 1970s and ’80s, and even then it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.

The extensive project saw numerous delays, including a famous incident in which the route passed through an Indian burial ground in the 1980s.

That and some tragic crashes involving construction workers contributed to a persistent rumor that the roadway was cursed, but according to newspaper reports from the time, a Native American had threatened to file a lawsuit, not to curse the roadway.

In 1989, then-Gov. Thomas Kean cut the ribbon on a roadway running from the foot of the Walt Whitman Bridge to Maurice River Township, just shy of Cape May County, leaving traffic to follow the slower, winding Route 47 along the Delaware Bay through the west side of the county before cutting toward Wildwood.

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

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