Neighbors and activists say a $10.7 billion plan to widen the New Jersey Turnpike extension in North Jersey and replace the Newark Bay Bridge will worsen pollution, attract more cars and push traffic into already overburdened neighborhoods on both sides of the Holland Tunnel.

But New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti is defending the project, which stretches north from Exit 14 of the turnpike to the tunnel — the area from Newark Liberty International Airport through Bayonne and Jersey City.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti says it makes sense fiscally and will reduce traffic. She pushes back on objectors’ argument that it contradicts the state’s goals to reduce global warming. She has the support of Gov. Phil Murphy, who has the power to shut down the plan — which a growing number of organizations, elected leaders and activists oppose.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority has envisioned the project in its long-term capital improvement plans for years, but it’s getting closer to becoming a reality. The first phase of the work — expected to take 10 to 15 years to complete — is slated to begin in 2026. And in the coming months, the state will hire a project manager to usher the plan through a myriad of permit applications and public hearings, all of which are expected to be contested by the considerable number of groups and elected officials who oppose the project.

“Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” David Pringle — an environmentalist with Clean Water Action and the Empower NJ coalition of dozens of faith, community, environmental and political groups — told the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s commissioners at a November meeting. He was one of more than 25 opponents to address them. “This $10 billion for 8 mile road project is insanity — on steroids.”

Statements against the project have been signed by some of the state’s most prominent environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey. BlueWaveNJ, a powerful progressive lobbying group often allied with Murphy on initiatives, is against the proposal as well.

You have a hole in your roof, you patch it. ... There comes a time when patching it is entirely inefficient to just going to get a new roof.
New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti

Growing traffic, growing cost

The road currently has 27 elevated segments, including the Newark Bay Bridge, which would be replaced under the proposal. The current plan calls for lanes to be doubled from two to four in each direction in the first segment. A second segment would expand from two to three lanes.

The Turnpike Authority and other administration officials say the widening is needed to mitigate traffic on a stretch of highway that often crawls to a standstill, alongside other initiatives like the long-delayed plan to build a new tunnel for Amtrak and NJ Transit trains.

But the opponents say it doesn’t address a critical problem.

“There's basically three highways that feed into the Holland Tunnel, and the Holland Tunnel is not getting any bigger, so it's not going to work,” Jimmy Lee, president of Safe Streets Jersey City, said. He points to research that argues new highways draw more cars, a concept in economics and planning known as “induced demand.”

“Even if it did work, there'd be induced demand, so people would fill it right back up and it just, you know, in a couple years, it will just go right back to what it was,” Lee said.

The cost to widen the highway and replace the bridge was estimated to be $10.7 billion in a Turnpike Authority budget approved in October — more than double the $4.7 billion estimated in a 2017 needs assessment. It now amounts to more than $1 billion per mile.

“The bridge has been a problem for a long time,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “There has been a need for regular repairs, and the bridge has no shoulder, which means accidents can’t move off the roadway and emergency vehicles can’t get there.”

The Newark Bay Bridge could be repaired for a fraction of the cost of replacing it, according to an engineering report commissioned by the Turnpike Authority. But Gutierrez-Scaccetti said she believes that’s just throwing good money after bad.

“You have a hole in your roof, you patch it. Well, then you have another hole and you patch that and there comes a time when patching it is entirely inefficient to just going to get a new roof,” she said.

Newark Bay Bridge as seen from the window of a helicopter in 2014. An engineering report found the aging bridge could be rehabilitated, but New Jersey transportation officials argue it's better to replace it entirely.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti knows her way around highway construction. She worked for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority for 21 years before taking a job running Florida’s turnpike system. The proposal to expand the New Jersey Turnpike extension predates her return to the Garden State in 2018, when Murphy appointed her.

“We have to accept that we are large and growing, and we need an infrastructure that matches that,” Murphy said during WNYC’s "Ask Governor Murphy" show in September. The governor also insisted support for widening the turnpike did not conflict with his climate change goals. By the time the construction is finished, in approximately 15 years, most of the cars and trucks on the road will be electric or hydrogen-fueled, and won’t burn fossil fuel or pollute the air, he and Gutierrez-Scaccetti both argue.

Even so, they say, roads will still be needed.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti also disagrees with the idea that widening the turnpike will be useless because of the choke point at the Holland Tunnel. An analysis by the Turnpike Authority found less than 20% of the traffic on the Exit 14 extension takes the Holland Tunnel. The rest exits to the Port of New York and New Jersey, one of the largest ports in North America, or to Bayonne and Jersey City.

“But I think the bigger issue is creating better mass transit throughout Hudson County, so that, perhaps, that problem kind of solves itself,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.

Worries on both sides of the Hudson

That’s precisely what the project's opponents want — more funding for mass transit and less for highways.

The city councils of Hoboken and Jersey City have both passed resolutions opposing the turnpike's widening.

“There's a lot of reasons why this is just a bad idea,” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said. “You could talk about the mentality of just building more infrastructure for cars versus thinking about mass transit.”

Jersey City officials and residents are also concerned that more cars on a wider turnpike will cause more air pollution, and the enlarged footprint of the roadway will further hurt the neighborhoods it cuts through. They also say that with more cars heading to the choke point of the tunnel, more vehicles looking to avoid that logjam will instead take side streets — causing more traffic and more accidents on local roads.

There's a lot of reasons why this is just a bad idea.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop

The Turnpike Authority has not studied the impact on local traffic, according to a resolution passed by the Jersey City Council.

Fulop says Jersey City will be involved in the approval process that the Turnpike Authority will conduct before shovels hit the ground, including an environmental impact study that is currently underway and the public hearings. Gutierrez-Scaccetti says the project will need permits from entities including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard.

When activists called into the November Turnpike Authority board meeting, they also had the support of Holland Tunnel neighbors on the New York side of the Hudson.

“We oppose any attempt to send more traffic into our already congested neighborhoods,” said Andrea Pedersen, a volunteer with Transportation Alternatives and its campaign to improve Canal Street. “Too many people have been injured and worse yet killed crossing Canal Street. The effects of pollution has had long-term effects on people living here. Please don't move forward with this backward-thinking plan."

A report provided by the group found that 13 people have been killed on the busy corridor since 2009, and 128 were seriously injured.

Traffic in New York City is already at the center of another politically contentious issue. Murphy and other New Jersey elected leaders oppose a New York plan to charge drivers to enter Lower Manhattan, a scheme known as congestion pricing. The governor says New Jersey drivers already pay a hefty toll on the tunnels and bridges, and shouldn’t have to pay more.

Transportation officials stand by their plan to widen the extension of the New Jersey Turnpike that begins at Exit 14 and ends at the Holland Tunnel. The current plan calls for lanes to be doubled from two to four in each direction in the first segment. A second segment would expand from two to three lanes.

Pockets of support

The project has few supporters among North Jersey municipal officials — with one notable exception. Bayonne leaders, including Mayor Jimmy Davis, have come out in favor of the widening. But the Jersey Journal reported earlier this year Bayonne officials knew of the Turnpike Authority’s plans before negotiating a redevelopment plan with local developer the Alessi Organization — a donor to Davis’ campaign — for a property the Turnpike Authority will likely seek to acquire for the project. That could significantly boost the property’s value.

But a spokesman for Davis says that’s inaccurate, because the city’s goal for the Marist property was to get a ready-to-use building for Bayonne’s school system. The city learned about the turnpike plan from newspaper reports, and that’s why the school district backed out of the sale, Joe Ryan, public information officer for Bayonne, said in a written statement. Then the city went looking for a buyer, he said.

“It was only then that the Alessi Organization made a deal with the Marist Brothers for the land,” Ryan said.

And he said the mayor’s support for the project is entirely based on the need for better traffic flow: “The narrowness of the existing Turnpike Bridge makes it difficult to get into and out of Bayonne during rush hours.”

In addition to supporting the widening, Davis wants to see a new interchange for truck traffic to and from Port Newark.

We're not saying don't spend those $10 billion. We're saying it can be put to much, much better use.
Jimmy Lee, president of Safe Streets Jersey City

So far, there appears to be only one other constituency that is speaking out in favor of the turnpike widening project: the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative, known as ELEC 825. The organization represents both the contractors and workers who operate large construction equipment. The cooperative says with the high volume of goods being transported through the area, the infrastructure is critical.

And the roadway and Newark Bay Bridge are at the end of their lifespans.

“Back when the extension project was built, Amazon, Blue Apron, Wayfair, they didn't exist,” said the group’s spokesman Michael Makarski. “Online ordering didn't exist. The Supermax tankers that find their way into Newark Bay and into the Bayonne Harbor didn't exist. So we need to be planning for the future.”

On that point, both sides agree. The transportation commissioner and Murphy say roads aren’t going away and the responsible action is to keep them safe and improve their usefulness. Opponents say planning for the future necessitates reducing investments in car use. They want to see more electrification of trains and buses, completing the Hudson-Bergen light rail line and giving buses their own lane into the Holland Tunnel.

“Let's build housing, let’s build mass transit, let's build things that we need,” said Lee, the Safe Streets president. “We're not saying don't spend those $10 billion. We're saying it can be put to much, much better use.”