One thing I kept in mind when fighting and defeating North Jersey casinos was Benjamin Franklin’s advice, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” His advice remains my approach when fighting for our fair share of transportation resources to fix one of the most important roadways in Atlantic County.
Atlantic County’s families deserve their fair share of state support for vital projects. Our county’s economy, pre-COVID, generated nearly a billion dollars in taxes and nearly 20% of all of the jobs in the state’s tourism and hospitality industry. That’s why I continue to remind Gov. Murphy and others that our local economy is unique and vital to the entire state. One way to ensure the state is successful while our families have job opportunities is by upgrading our roads and bridges, like Route 40.
Route 40 into Atlantic City is supposed to be a highway, not a U-turn. Far too often police officers have to line up orange cones and turn cars around because the intersection of Route 40 and West End Avenue becomes a flooded lake. As any local family knows, even a full moon on a clear night can cause enough flooding to cut off families who live in Atlantic City and the Downbeach communities from their homes.
In fact, flooding closes the intersection of Route 40 and West End Avenue at least 20 times a year. Other times, it floods just enough to send families to the car wash for a rinse to prevent the salt water from rusting out their undercarriages. Can you imagine what would happen if our families had to evacuate for a Nor’easter? Following Franklin’s advice, I continue working with the N.J. Department of Transportation to fix the problem and raise the road to address the flooding so Route 40 is a highway our families can depend on.
Early in my term, I met with a committee of local business, health, education and labor leaders who told me addressing the flooding along Route 40 must be a top priority. Aside from being a critical commuter and evacuation route, Route 40 provides direct access to our $3 billion Atlantic City casino industry, which provides over 27,000 jobs and supports a wide range of state programs for our seniors; access to Stockton University’s Atlantic City Campus, which provides opportunities for students from middle class families and recently broke ground on its $4.6 million Phase II expansion; and access to promising economic development opportunities at Bader Field. As former Greater Atlantic City Chamber President Joe Kelly shared with me, “When the road closes, families miss work and businesses lose customers. In order to sustain our local economy, our middle class families deserve a road that doesn’t constantly flood.”
After the committee’s recommendation last year, I laid out the need for a project with Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, commissioner of the N.J. Department of Transportation, and Daniel Kelly, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, to emphasize how important this project is to our local families. They agreed raising the road is a priority and are moving forward with a project I advocated for during the Christie administration. As conceived, the project would raise the roadway elevation by 2.5 feet between mileposts 59.5 and 63.4 while correcting the gaps between the sea walls under the roadway, and driving sheeting along West End Avenue. In fact, after our meeting, NJDOT moved forward, on schedule, with the public hearing and completed the preliminary engineering phase last year.
Then the pandemic hit, causing me concern that this project might be stalled. Since “energy and persistence conquer all things,” I called Commissioner Gutierrez-Scaccetti to prevent this project from being a casualty of COVID.
Thankfully, in talking with the commissioner, this project remains on course with the final design completion and award to the contractor still set for 2021; construction to start in spring 2022; and substantial completion of construction expected in spring 2025. In the meantime, NJDOT will be purchasing right of way to facilitate construction.
Of course, we have to make sure families and tourists can safely travel to and from Absecon Island during construction, which is why I worked with the commissioner to ensure NJDOT will keep three lanes out of four open during construction so there will not be a negative impact on travel times for working families and tourists.
Clearly, we need to adapt to the new reality of rising ocean levels. If we do nothing to fix this problem or if we allow the pandemic to become an excuse for inaction, the flooding will be more frequent and severe, blocking our families from their homes and jobs while exposing them to more costly property losses. By paying attention to the needs of our working families and fighting for our fair share, we are making sure this highway is free from flooding to improve the quality of life for the casino cocktail server from Egg Harbor Township, the air traffic controller from Margate, the university student from Pleasantville, and the building trades worker from Absecon just as it is for the tourists visiting our casinos and beaches.