TRENTON – A diverse and unlikely coalition has formed in opposition to the replacement of the Scudder Falls bridge over the Delaware River.
Conservative firebrands Sen. Michael Doherty, (R-23), Washington Township, and Steve Lonegan, head of Americans for Prosperity, have joined with liberal stalwarts Sen. Shirley Turner, (D-15), Trenton, as well as Jeff Tittel, head of the N.J. Sierra Club, to fight the $330 million Scudder Falls bridge project.
They oppose the project on economic and environmental grounds.
They said today that the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission – which they accused of often operating in secret – contemplates as much as a $2 toll on what is now a free bridge to support the massive project, and opponents fear it will not relieve, but only exacerbate, traffic congestion on the heavily traveled bridge that channels I-95 between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
In fact, Doherty said this project is not about improving traffic flow at all. “They want to get a new toll,” he said today, and in order to accomplish that the commission is willing to raze a bridge deemed perfectly safe in a 2010 engineering report, he added.
Ed Smith, whose term as one of New Jersey’s five bridge commissioners began in July, said there are 20 commission bridges, seven of which have tolls. He and the other opponents said today they believe this project is a bid to institute a systemwide toll increase, one that would especially hit hard on motorists in Warren and Sussex counties who have no free-bridge alternative.
The Scudder Falls bridge was placed in service in 1961, is the newest of the commission’s bridges, and yet this is the one deemed obsolete, a judgment the critics challenged today.
Tittel said that in addition to wasting money, the project – which has no federal funding – will hurt the environment.
He said the commission can’t get federal funding because it refuses to do an environmental impact statement. He said the project will involve sinking pilings into a floodway, and will lead to increased flooding, loss of wetlands, more sprawl, and a rise in air pollution.
In addition, in 2017 an interchange will open at I-95 and Route 276 in Pennsylvania, and as a result, according to New Jersey’s own studies, Scudder Falls traffic will decrease, he said.
And yet, the opponents said, this project would widen the bridge to nine lanes that entering Pennsylvania will narrow to four lanes.
“This is the bridge to beyond nowhere,” said Tittel, who called the project unconscionable.
Lonegan, a longtime opponent of public borrowing without voter approval, said he was proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other members of this coalition.
“Leave it to government,’’ said Lonegan, “to destroy a perfectly good bridge … institute a toll, and call that economic growth. We can’t afford any more of this.”
And Turner, whose district includes Trenton, said the fallout from this project will be more traffic crossing the free Calhoun Street and Trenton Makes bridges, which already have heavy use.
“This will exacerbate the nightmare we currently have,’’ she said. “I have a sneaking suspicion they just want to put tolls in place to generate revenues to help balance budgets.”
And the foes believe they have a fighting chance to stop this project.
Doherty said this project began during the administration of Pa. Gov. Rendell, but with two Republican governors in place in Chris Christie in New Jersey and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, Doherty believes they have a shot at getting minutes vetoed as well as drawing support from Pennsylvania legislators who have indicated opposition.
Doherty said that once Christie has all of the facts, he is confident the governor will oppose this project just as he opposed the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel project involving New York.
Bridge Commission stands firm
But the Joint Toll Bridge Commission fired back strongly today, defending the necessity of the project to meet future transportation needs.
In addition, they defended the Commission’s actions from the charge of secrecy opponents levied.
There were a combination of more than 25 meetings involving stakeholders, business groups, environmental regulatory agencies, transportation agencies, and the public held over a decade, including a public hearing over two years ago on the issue of tolls, commission spokespeople said.
Commission Executive Director Frank McCartney said in a prepared release that traffic studies, commuter delays and accident records document the need for the project.
“It’s very disheartening that some people would put the lives and safety of motorists at risk by pursuing a political agenda with respect to this project,’’ he said.
McCartney said the bridge already struggles with a daily average of 57,000 vehicles a day as of last year, which will increase by about 30 percent by 2030.
He called the Scudder Falls bridge work a comprehensive approach to a regional problem that includes – among other things – reconstruction of the I-95/Route 29 interchange and widening I-95 where needed.
Yet the opponents stood in unity today against a project they say will be costly and they maintain was arranged with less than full public disclosure.
“They’ve operated in a secret manner in the past. We’re not going to let them do it again,’’ Doherty said.