Wall on I-80 gets cold shoulder from Pa. and N.J. neighbors

KNOWLTON TWP., NJ – The New Jersey Department of Transportation wants to build a barrier to protect drivers from falling rocks along a section of I-80 in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area that some have called the "Jurassic Park fence."

Neighbors and officials aren't happy at the prospect and held a meeting at the Upper Mount Bethel, Pa., firehouse on Friday, Oct. 25, speaking with one voice against a New Jersey Department of Transportation plan to mitigate rockfall that the residents say isn’t happening.

“The river doesn’t divide us,” Upper Mount Bethel Supervisor Bob Teale said.  Although the rock fall mitigation is planned for New Jersey, alternative routes may go through Pennsylvania.

The group calling itself I80DWGCoalition (for I-80 Delaware Water Gap Coalition) invited officials and residents to hear more about the plans on Friday, Oct. 25, at the Mt. Bethel Firehouse.  Knowlton Township (N. J.) Mayor Adele Starrs is founder of the group. The rocks are in a section of Route 80 in her township.

John Bermingham, chair of the Upper Mount Bethel Board of Supervisors, chaired the meeting.

New Jersey officials claim there is danger from falling rocks on the stretch of Route 80 from milepost 1.04 to 1.45. Hardwick Township Mayor Kevin Duffy said his research has found 70 to 80 accidents in that area unrelated to falling rocks and one related to a car hitting a rock. 

State documents first indicated nine rock-related accidents over 16 years but an expansion of the study to the eastbound lanes brought the number up to 25 collisions with non-fixed objects, including tree limbs, potholes and items thrown onto the roadway.  Duffy said the NJDOT claimed the objects were all rocks. 

The NJDOT website cites “physical and geological hazards” caused by “large overhangs, steep vertical faces and loose blocks” resulting in rocks toppling down and landing on the shoulder and roadway. 

Adele Starrs said she submitted an Open Public Records request and received 17 pages that had been totally redacted.

After several calls to the NJDOT, Public Information Officer Stephen Schapiro issued a statement on Monday, Nov. 4, saying, “A total of 25 incidents directly related to rockfall activity have been documented over a 17-year period from 2001 to 2017 and included 12 rock debris, five downed trees, four icing conditions and four flooding events. I-80 has been fully closed at least three times within the past 15 years due to major rockfall events.” 

The DOT statement continued: “Eleven incidents were identified that resulted in 14 motor vehicle crashes caused by rockfall. The majority of rockfall-related motor vehicle collisions involved a single vehicle with one incident involving two vehicles that resulted in one fatality and one minor injury.”

Schapiro cited this stretch of Route 80 as having the “highest rockfall hazard risk in New Jersey based on the Federal Highway Administration’s Rock Fall Hazard Management System.”  The statement went on “The Federal government requires a proactive approach based on geological survey to mitigate the risk of rocks falling onto the roadway.”

Skepticism among residents

The two mayors and many residents don’t believe there is any falling rock danger. They also don’t believe detouring traffic is safe.  

The stretch of the interstate in question is slightly more than a mile from the I-80 bridge across the Delaware River. According to a concept development study detour plan dated Aug. 8, 2019 that was  provided to the residents in the group I80DWGCoalition, it showed vehicles detoured from that stretch of road crossing the river on the Portland Bridge which is one lane in each direction and using Pennsylvania Route 611, which has rock fall problems of its own and weight limits, as several residents pointed out. 

“They aren’t thinking across the river,” Pennsylvania State Senator Mario Scavello said, adding, “You can’t teach common sense.”

On Monday, Schapiro said the detour plan involving Pennsylvania Route 611 was ruled out and is no longer being considered. He said these detour plans often change several times before a project starts. 

He said the project is in the preliminary engineering stage. There will be an environmental assessment and a formal public hearing by the summer of 2020.

About Jane Primerano

Jane Primerano has covered agriculture and environmental issues in the Northeast for nearly a decade after 20+ years of reporting on municipal and county government, police and education for weekly and daily newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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