The Atlantic City Expressway west from the Jersey Shore leads to one of the most confounding highway bottlenecks in America. After the expressway becomes Route 42, it leads into branches of Interstate 76 across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Walt Whitman Bridge after crossing Interstate 295.
This confluence of multiple major highways and the nearly quarter million vehicles a day using them is worsened by a dumbfounding design flaw — the lack of a full interchange with I-295. Many drivers have to make U-turns to get the highway they want headed in the direction they want.
Repair and reconstruction seems to have been going on nearly nonstop for four decades. Jokes about the job providing full career employment to workers paid by the state turned into jokes about providing multi-generational employment.
Then, in 2013, a grand project called the Direct Connection began, with the goal of finally providing the missing full interchange between I-295 and the other roads. While other seemingly equivalent major projects up and down the East Coast’s Interstate 95 corridor were started and finished, the Direct Connection chugged along showing a bit of progress each year toward a finish that’s still hard to imagine.
The project originally was due to be completed next year. But revisions, utility problems and acquiring more rights of way pushed the end date back to 2028.
In March, a major piece of the project — a retaining wall supporting a high-arching ramp to connect highways — collapsed. For once, drivers could be thankful the Direct Connection roadways hadn’t been opened yet.
The collapse blocked a lane on I-295 and stopped work on the project. The state hired a forensic engineering firm to determine the cause of the collapse. A new schedule and estimate of costs for the project can’t be made until after the report is finished (already overdue more than a month).
At $900 million and 15 years long before the collapse, the Direct Connection is on track to be New Jersey’s costliest and longest roadway project. NJ Spotlight recently said, “It seems likely the project will eventually rival or exceed Boston’s notorious ‘Big Dig’ that took from 1991 to 2006 to build two long tunnels to take interstate highways under the city.”
N.J. Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said that while everyone must accept that it will take longer, “We are going to do our very best to minimize that, and try to wrap this project up quickly.” By quickly, perhaps she means a decade from now.
Some longtime South Jersey drivers already wondered if they would live long enough to see this crucial intersection properly designed and completed.
Funding isn’t the only infrastructure challenge facing New Jersey.