Opposition to Rockwall project near Delaware Water Gap grows

BELVIDERE, NJ – For the first time in decades, Richard D. Gardner is not in public service.

After 18 years as a Warren County Freeholder which followed his service as committeeman and mayor of Franklin Township after serving on that township’s planning board, Gardner chose to retire rather than run for reelection in 2020.

Not having an elected office doesn’t mean he’s not staying involved in issues in the area as was illustrated by one of his final acts in office, a strongly worded letter condemning the NJ Department of Transportation’s Route 80 rockfall mitigation project.

He sent the letter to federal, state and local officials on both sides of the river because he believes the project will negatively impact residents in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The letter reads in part, "DOT’s claim to this $65 million project is the need to prevent rockfallinto I-80. Rockfalls on I-80 are actually a rare occurrence. It begs the question, why is our state DOT so gung-ho to charge ahead and spend tens of millions of taxpayers’ money on this project. Is there not legislative oversight? Does Governor Phil Murphy know how his DOT is operated and does he care about the negative impacts of this scheduled project?"

Gardner is not the only official who has joined the grass roots opposition to the project. Congressman Josh Gottheimer, D-5, sent a letter to the Federal Highway Administration asking for an independent review and for the answers to four questions:

  • Does the FHWA concur with NJDOT that the rockfall along this segment of I-80 poses an urgent safety risk that requires immediate attention?
  • Would addressing the rockwall or the S-curve in this segment of roadway prevent more injuries and save more lives? Which project would have the higher benefit-cost ratio?
  • Does NJDOT’s environmental assessment for this project comply with all federal laws, including the Historic Preservation Act of 1966?
  • What traffic mitigation assessments has NJDOT has conducted as part of the proposed project? Does FHWA believe those mitigation plans are adequate given the volume of traffic on this stretch of I-80?

He and Mayors Adele Starrs of Knowlton Township and Kevin Duffy of Hardwick Township are also meeting with the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to discuss an impact on nearby historic properties.

Other local officials in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been outspoken about the project and now N.J. State Sen. Steve Oroho and Assemblyman Hal Wirth, both R-24, introduced identical bills urging the DOT to halt work on the project. A4601 and S2863 contain the explanatory statement:

"This bill prohibits the Department of Transportation from planning for, designing, or constructing or using funds for the planning, design, or construction of, a rock wall between milepost 1.00 and milepost 1.50 on Interstate Highway Route 80. The bill also requires the department, for any project for rock fall mitigation between those mileposts, to conduct a full analysis of all feasible non-rock wall options for rock fall mitigation."

Wirths told NorthJersey.com: "I’ve never seen a more united group of Democrats, Republicans, Congressmen – both sides of the aisle, there’s no one who wants that project. People are extremely frustrated and don’t feel like they’re being told the truth."

He is hoping for more co-sponsors during this session. His partner in the 24th, Assemblyman Parker Space, is a co-sponsor.

In an interview a few days after he signed the letter at the Wayne Dumont Jr Administration Building which has a view of the Delaware Water Gap near the proposed project, Gardner said, "I am hopeful the governor takes this letter to heart and looks at it seriously."

The Route 80 project is not the only one Gardner believes is unnecessary.

"I’m looking at the Jugtown Mountain Pass," he said, "the state blasted back the sides of the hill so far there has never been any rockfall," yet there is a mitigation plan there as well.

"Why are they spending the taxpayers money like this?" Gardner asked rhetorically.

He said the legislature needs to create a blue ribbon commission to look at how the DOT operates. "This can’t continue," he said, "they need to work on behalf of the public."

Back to the Water Gap project specifically, he pointed out what most of the other officials have said, the S-curves are the problem. The two-lane highway was not constructed for today’s large vehicles.

Route 80 was designed in the 1950s when the largest trucks had 10 wheels, not 18, he pointed out, noting the Pennsylvania DOT expects traffic at the Gap to double by 2045.

And, speaking of PennDOT, that agency is planning a road widening project that would add a lane between Stroudsburg and Tannersville during the same time period.

According to the project overview on the PennDOT website, they, in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration are working on environmental studies and the preliminary design for a reconstruction of 3.5 miles of the highway in Monroe County, including widening and reconfiguring intersections.

PennDOT refers to this stretch of Route 80 as a gateway to the Poconos as well as a carrier of commuter traffic and freight. That strip of highway was built in the 1960s and, according to PennDOT, has deteriorated.

The project is a result of a 2009 PennDOT study of the area from Exit 293 to 310. The area of reconstruction runs from immediately west of Exit 303 to east of Exit 306 at the Brodhead Creek bridge in East Stroudsburg. The project area spans three municipalities, Stroud Township and the boroughs of East Stroudsburg and Stroudsburg.

NJDOT Spokesman Stephen Schapiro says the two agencies have coordinated their projects, which are about 4.5 miles apart. Schapiro said they have identified no major concerns. He also said standard practice requires contractors to coordinate closely.

The I-80 Incident Management and Operations Task Force plans to bring regional experts together to discuss and coordinate traffic issues starting in September 2021. The task force will be administered by the NJDOT Office of Emergency Management, Schapiro said.

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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