The following Letter to the Editor regarding the Route 22 expansion plan was submitted by Bridgewater resident Andrew Leven.
Since at least 2001, Somerset County has been working toward expanding Route 22 through Bridgewater. An important aspect of the Route 22 expansion is to use federal funds to do it, controlled by the county. It is the county that controls how federal dollars are spent on a state highway. Meaning the County gives out the contracts for contractors and consultants that the county selects as part of a county designed a project that will benefit specific commercial property owners.
Of course, after the contractors and consultants move on to the next project, and the commercial property owners sell their property, we-–the residents of Bridgewater–will have to live with the results of their work for at least the next 30 years.
Previously called the Suburban Boulevard Project, this expansion has been positioned as a response to traffic and safety concerns. Traffic and safety are certainly issues on Route 22. Less clear is whether the proposal that the county is about to submit to the New Jersey DOT is progress or payola.
Here are some things to consider. The county now has three alternatives on the table that range in cost from between about $32 million to about $54 million taxpayer dollars. And each of them will expand Route 22 from six to 10 LANES. The area being expanded will cover about three miles of Route 22 in Bridgewater only. No other town but Bridgewater is impacted–perhaps because we are the only town that had the foresight to build real setbacks into our zoning plan. Those setbacks distinguish the Bridgewater section of Route 22 from the strip malls with no setback of Somerville and Green Brook. And those setbacks have been in the developer’s sights since at least 2001. In 2001, the county plan for our Route 22 setbacks was to do the following:
Set-back requirements would be reduced along the outer roadway to create a more center-based environment and clustering required. Height restrictions could be eased to promote greater density, and mixed use zones created so that retail could occur on ground floors in non-residential buildings. (2001 Suburban Boulevard Plan, pg. 46).
Why allow high, dense buildings along our section of Route 22? Why transform the middle of our town into New Brunswick? I don’t know why, because I am not a mind reader.
But I do know that monetizing setbacks means a lot of money for commercial property owners.
Another thing to consider is whether building the Garden State Parkway through the heart of Bridgewater will enhance safety. Safety improvements have already been approved and, when implemented, will address various U-turns through the median strip. These safety improvements were presumably designed to enhance safety. Yet those approved safety improvements are apparently not part of the county’s Route 22 safety analysis. Instead, in its June 14 public presentation, the county’s “safety information,” which was used to support the Garden State Parkway in Bridgewater, did not take into account the already approved (but not yet built) safety improvements to the same portion of Route 22.
It is also painfully clear to any of us who drive Route 22 that the businesses in the median strip create a real safety hazard. People slow down or speed up in the left lane to enter or exit those businesses. One solution would be to buy the businesses in the median strip at fair market value through eminent domain. There are, after all, only about five of them. But the county says it is better to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to build two extra lanes (one each on the east and west bound sides of Route 22) just to service these five or so businesses. Lanes that require the county to pay contractors, pay consultants, and will enhance the value of this commercial land for a few property owners.
As for traffic, several things stand out about the proposed Garden State Parkway through Bridgewater. One is that since Route 22 would be expanded in Bridgewater only, we will have created our own 10 lane parking lot; Route 22 would then go from four to six lanes in Branchburg to 10 lanes in Bridgewater, and then back to four to six lanes in Green Brook. So cars would fill the 10 lanes in our town as they fought to re-enter much narrower portions of Route 22 in Green Brook and Branchburg. Progress, or payola?
Moreover, while Route 22 is certainly congested, that congestion is limited to certain choke points that could presumably be solved without building out six lanes to 10. For example, in the county’s own survey, about 60 percent of the public identified the afternoon rush as the worst congestion Only 7.4 percent identified the morning rush hour. As a morning Route 22 rush hour commuter, I have tracked my own travel time and can consistently drive between 55 and 60 mph at 8:30 a.m.
Then there is the county’s measure of congestion. They provide the trips per hour on Route 22, but don’t tie it to anything that matters. Here is what I mean; if I need to get to Westfield, I estimate how much time it will take me and plan accordingly. Not how many cars per hour travel past a certain point on Route 22. So I asked the county in April of 2011, “how much time does it take to drive Route 22 through Bridgewater during rush hour?” And they did not know. I asked the same question on June 14 of this year–and got the same answer. They still don’t know. It is one thing to generally know you have a traffic problem. But before you widen Route 22 by 66 percent and build the Garden State Parkway through the heart of town, it would be nice if the county knew what specific traffic problem they were trying to solve.
Unless, of course, your goal is not progress, but payola. Which leads me to my last point. There is this unspoken notion that federal money is “free” money. So the $32 to $54 million dollar cost of this project is “free.” Really? We live in a time where my generation–the baby boomers–are spending our children, and our grandchildren’s inheritance as fast as Congress can pass the next bill. The question is not whether federal money is free, for it obviously is not. Rather, the question is whether it is being wasted and, if it is, what you can do about it.
Because there are three very important things that you can do right now. One is to take 30 seconds to send an email to the county in opposition to this at www.route22corridor.info.
Another is to email the same message to Congressman Leonard Lance at http://lance.house.gov/.
The third thing is to contact the Foothill Civic Association with your views–for or against–at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Concerned Resident of Bridgewater