KNOWLTON TWP. – The New Jersey Department of Transportation and local officials in the Delaware Water Gap remain at odds over a rockfall mitigation project planned since 2009.
Part of the controversy is that many residents, including the mayors of the affected townships, don’t believe rocks are really falling.
Among the skeptics is Kevin Duffy, mayor of Hardwick Township, who said the DOT classifies every non-fixed object found on Route 80 as a rock. He believes they may also be mufflers, hubcaps, toys children have pitched out of cars, anything but rocks.
"They said every single non-fixed object was a rock," he said. "It’s beyond belief."
He noted the DOT told him there were 25 non-fixed objects on the highway near the Delaware Water Gap over 17 years.
The project is based on the assumption that there have been accidents caused by rockfall in the area between milepost 1.04 and 1.45 on Route 80 in Hardwick Township.
The NJDOT contends there have been 13 vehicular accidents in that stretch of highway caused by falling rocks.
A DOT website says a maintenance staff member told the office in a phone interview that a motorist was killed by crashing into a seven-ton boulder that broke through the median "five or six years ago" near milepost 1.0.
Another report on the DOT website stated that on Oct. 7, 2010, a boulder rolled down the hill between mile post 1.0 and 1.2. and was struck by both a semi and a car because of the substandard site distance.
When asked for dates of the other 12 accidents, DOT spokesman Stephen Schapiro didn’t respond. The New Jersey State Police records are searchable by date, so without dates, it’s difficult to research accidents.
The DOT does have a record of a washout that closed the right Westbound lane of Route 80 from 10:04 p.m. April 15, 2007, to 11:04 a.m. April 16, 2007. The website notes two other full closures of the highway and several slowdowns or partial closures, but doesn’t specify dates and times.
Schapiro said maintenance department employees say they remove rock pieces weighing between 30 and 50 pounds about every two months.
At a public meeting on the DOT proposal last year, held by I-80 Delaware Water Gap Coalition (I90DWGC), public officials and residents were skeptical of the statistics about accidents. Starrs filed in an Open Public Records request for more specific information and was sent 17 pages of redactions that she showed off at the meeting.
S-curves in the area are a more critical problem, according to Pennsylvania State Senator Mario Scavello, who has been active in opposition to the plan.
"I’ve talked to the DOT about the S-curves for years," Duffy said, referring to the winding of the highway from Columbia, N.J., to the Water Gap. He said it is more important to fix the S-curves where there are between 70 and 80 accidents each year, some fatal.
"We put up warning signs," Duffy said. "They were always knocked over."
He would like to see the $65 million this rockfall project is estimated to cost repurposed to straighten the road.
Approximately 51,000 vehicles per day travel the highway at that point, totaling about 18.5 million a year.
When asked if he was more concerned that the project is not needed or that it will create havoc during an estimated five-year construction schedule, Duffy said he is equally concerned with both.
Duffy is very skeptical of the DOT claim that there will be no lane closures.
He said the state plans to shift the lanes closer to the Delaware River, reducing the lane width from 14 to 11 feet. That would mean lanes narrower than the tractor-trailers that drive on them.
"Trucks won’t be able to run next to each other in the two lanes," he pointed out. "Truckers will have to politely decide to merge." The DOT said it will post merge signs, but Duffy doesn’t have much faith they will work. "These guys are on a schedule," he said of long-haul truckers.
He believes there will be detours. The DOT assured Pennsylvania residents Route 611 would not be used. It is a two-lane road with rockfall problems of its own, but most believe cars and trucks will use it anyway.
On the New Jersey side, detours will be equally problematic, Duffy said.
If large trucks exit Route 80 at Exit 19 in Allamuchy Township and head south toward Hackettstown, it will "wreak havoc," he said, sending trucks onto two-lane and heavily-traveled Route 46. If they exit at Exit 12, they could use Routes 521 and 519 through Hope and White townships. That area is planned for a huge warehouse project that could send many tractor-trailers through those roads as well. The county roads are not designed for that sort of weight, he said.
Even if there is a danger from falling rocks, the officials are sure there are other ways to mitigate the danger that don’t involve construction of a large fence and rock wall that will detract from the beauty of the rock formations so close to the Delaware Water Gap and won’t take months to build.
The DOT report on the situation refers back to the Rockfall Hazard Rating System implemented in 1994 to rank 444 rock cut slopes on state and federal highways. The ranking calls the area along Route 80 the most dangerous. It consists of four slopes in a contiguous geologic formation.
The website explains that rockcut areas inevitably exhibit physical and geological safety hazards. They are characterized by large overhangs, steep vertical faces, loose boulders and rock blocks. They may feature large open fissures.
Lack of stability in the rockface can result in the rocks and debris sliding down the hill in various ways or toppling down or a complete rock mass failure.
Starrs compared the proposed mitigation with the 30-foot fence on a nearby stretch of Route 46. The concrete berm which is proposed along with stretches of fencing including I-beams and mesh will be 60 feet high. Starrs considers it the worst of 14 options proposed for the mitigation.
Another skeptic is Adele Starrs, mayor of Knowlton Township, who is also fed up with the state not bringing elected officials into the discussion. "All we are asking is to sit down with the DOT. We don’t want to be talked at, we want to be part of the discussion. We’ve been asking for three years."
The DOT formed a Public Advisory Group with residents of the 14 New Jersey and Pennsylvania municipalities, but no public officials.
Starrs, a founder of the Bi-State Elected Officials opposition group, said the DOT is using a "divide and conquer strategy" to exclude elected officials and bring on people they think would be more amenable to the project.
"They don’t want us in the room," she said.
The DOT continues to take comments from the elected officials but does not meet with them.
Starrs said representatives of the towns ask different questions than the general public does as they have different experiences and see the project in another context. In addition, she said she and Duffy as well as other elected officials spend a good deal of time researching the problems along Route 80.
The three recommended solutions are removal of the rock face, stabilization and protection. A combination could also be considered.
Removal would be a giant project.
Stabilization could involve targeted rock dowels or anchors, cable lashing, anchored mesh, polyurethane resin grouting, a concrete solution called shotcrete or some sort of buttressing. The problem with stabilization, according to the DOT website, is that these permanent systems require constant monitoring.
Protection means interception and retaining the rockfall with such constructions as catchment ditches or barriers and fences. There is a stacked stone wall along part of the route that predates any of this discussion.
Duffy said some of the solutions would require blasting, which could undermine the rockface and cause further problems.