A coalition of eight environmental groups filed a formal rule making petition, challenging the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s $4.7B proposal to widen the Hudson County extension to and from the Holland Tunnel while it is in the permitting process.
The petition, filed with the state Department of Transportation and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, contends both haven’t complied with two of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Executive Orders, to reduce greenhouse gases by 50% by 2030 and that state agencies consider environmental justice for overburdened and minority communities in all their decision making.
“NJTA and NJDOT are not only failing to take the action to reduce greenhouse gases as required by state policy, but are undermining it,” said John Reichman, EmpowerNJ Steering Committee member and Environmental Committee chair of BlueWave NJ.
Petitions also faulted the Turnpike Authority’s 2020-29 strategic plan, 10-year capital plan, rules and website for having no mention about ways to reduce climate change or about environmental justice for communities along the toll road that have been affected by pollution, respiratory diseases and traffic.
The 25-page petition makes a similar allegation that “like climate change, environmental justice for overburdened communities isn’t mentioned in the authority’s plans or on its website.”
The petition contends the authority’s highway expansions have – and will – disproportionately harm already overburdened neighborhoods where people of color live, which is what environmental justice provisions are supposed to address.
The petition was filed by EmpowerNJ, representing 135 faith, community and environmental groups, BlueWaveNJ, Clean Water Action NJ, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Don’t Gas the Meadowlands Coalition, Environment New Jersey, Food & Water Watch, and the New Jersey Sierra Club .
Representatives from various environmental groups, bicycle and multi-modal groups, and from the city of Jersey City have opposed the proposed widening earlier this year, contending it will worsen air pollution from vehicles, which has been blamed for respiratory nutrients such as asthma.
The proposed $4.7 billion project would widen the roadway and replace the Turnpike extension’s elevated structures in three phases. The first would widen the extension to four lanes in both directions with shoulders between Turnpike exit 14 in Newark and 14A in Bayonne. That includes replacing the Newark Bay Bridge that was opened in April 5, 1956, which is two lanes wide in each direction.
The second phase replaces the two lane highway and bridges with a three lane road in both directions, plus shoulders, between Exit 14A in Bayonne and the Columbus Drive exit in Jersey City.
The third phase replaces the elevated structures from Columbus Drive to Jersey Avenue that soar over downtown Jersey City and will keep the current two lanes in each direction and include standard sized shoulders. The existing extension was built in 1956 and has out lived its useful life, Turnpike Authority officials said.
The extension project is in the preliminary phases of obtaining permits from the DEP’s Division of Land Resource Protection. Objectors have asked the DEP to pause the permit approval process. Opponents who addressed the Turnpike’s board of commissioners in January supported repairing and rehabilitating the extension, but not widening it.
The petition goes further, demanding both the Turnpike Authority and State Department of Transportation adopt rules to establish a pollution reduction strategy meet 2030 goals set by Gov. Phil Murphyrequire any highway expansion project meets a climate impact test by showing it doesn’t conflict with those 2030 goals and that it meets his goal of reducing green house gases by 80% by 2050.
The petitioners also want a required cost-benefit analysis that considers whether the project increases or decreases traffic and vehicle miles traveled, includes potential increases in budgeted construction costs, and looks at the social and health costs of carbon and other pollution.
They also want alternatives considered in addition to expansion, such as public transportation, repair projects, safe street projects, bikeways and walkways. Finally, they want environmental justice to be considered in all decision making, as required by Executive Order 23 and a “robust public participation process” including providing early public input at the inception of a project.
“NJTA should not be spending tens of billions of dollars on highway expansions without a rigorous analysis of whether they are worth the cost,” it was stated in the petition. “NJTA has not shown how its projects would improve traffic congestion.”
The DOT and the NJTA have five months to decide on the petitions. At the end of the 90 days, the agencies can either grant the petition and initiate a rule-making proceeding or deny the petition giving written reasons for the denial, Reichman said.
Letters opposing the project and asking the DEP to pause the permitting process have been sent by Jersey City, Safe Streets JC, Bike Hudson County, Bici UC and Bike JC. Those letters state these groups oppose the project because it is “ill-conceived, harmful to the air and water quality and disproportionately harm minority and immigrant communities living along the Turnpike extension.”
Opponents also contend it would dump more traffic on Jersey City streets when the extension gets congested because even with the widening, it narrows down to two lanes on the final approach to, and from, the tunnel.
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Larry Higgs may be reached at email@example.com.