Route 55 is a state highway that runs for just over 40 miles from an interchange at Route 42 in Gloucester County to an intersection with Route 47 in Port Elizabeth in Cumberland County. The roadway was originally planned to extend into Cape May County to a connection point with the Garden State Parkway in Cape May Court House. The first portions of the road were operational in 1969 with full completing of what we now have in 1989. Meanwhile the extension to Cape May County was canceled by the state Department of Transportation in 1975 due to concerns about the impact of the extension on sensitive environmental areas.
Just three years before the cancellation of the extension, the 1972 New Jersey Master Plan for Transportation stated that the construction of the NJ 55 Freeway is “necessary as a parallel route to NJ 47.” At the time the extension was seen as something that would accelerate economic development, reduce accidents, ease congestion, especially in the summer season, and provide Cape May County with an important emergency evacuation route.
In 1975 the NJDOT estimated cost of completing the additional 20 miles of Route 55 was $155 million. Another feasibility study for the southern extension was done in 1993 with estimated costs at $423 million.
Where is the equivalent concern for the dangerous and negative impacts
of not extending the roadway?
In 2005 images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita caused the extension to again be revisited with the emphasis on its potential as an evacuation route for the Cape May peninsula. Cost estimates rose to over $500 million.
At each turn environmental groups opposed the extension often with the loudest voice belonging to the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club pushed for “other options” like the widening of Route 47 with a reversible third lane and increasing mass transit. Of course the high likelihood is those same environmental groups would end up opposing any widening of Route 47, which invariably would cross many of the same sensitive environmental areas. Meanwhile cost estimates continue to escalate with the Sierra Club claiming in a 2009 newsletter that NJDOT puts the expected costs at $2 billion, or an average of $100 million a mile.
It is time to get real about the Route 55 southern extension. This is not just about easing the commute of summer tourists, although aiding those who spend over $7 billion a year in Cape May County and send over $1.5 million a day north to Trenton in taxes would not be a bad investment.
If evacuation of the Cape May Peninsula is ever required during the summer season, it would be an exercise equivalent to evacuating Seattle, Washington, on a few days’ notice. Should such a catastrophe strike and should there be loss of life due to the lack of adequate evacuation routes, you can count on those same politicians in Trenton recalling that they were never against the extension, it was the others.
The administration of this state is pushing with little concern for any niceties for rapid and costly responses to a climate danger it sees as existential. Where in that thinking does it make sense for this county to try and evacuate via Routes 47, 9 and the Parkway, each of which may experience flooding?
We are told that we face a heightened prospect of major storms that will rapidly intensify in warming ocean waters. Does this change the equation on evacuation or does it not? The same administration that puts out the warning refuses to have NJDOT do the engineering studies that get this effort started.
NJDOT has dug in its heels on any widening of Route 47. Mass transit has never been and will never be a solution to evacuation of the county. The broadening of some country roads will have an unnoticeable impact on the vehicle traffic involved in evacuating the county.
While evacuation is a major concern, it is not the only one involved in the Route 55 debate. The long-standing concerns about road safety and reduced congestion remain, but so too does a new concern.
Cape May County land values have reached a point where the $7 billion tourism economy, which continues to grow annually, is threatened by the inability of workers in that economy to find adequate and affordable housing within the county’s borders. Neighboring counties have increasingly housed workers in the Cape May County workforce. They need a safe and less congested way to continue to work here.
We are told often by Trenton that an extension south of Route 55 would have a deleterious impact on sensitive Pine Barrens and wetland areas. Where is the equivalent concern for the dangerous and negative impacts of not extending the roadway?
There is no doubt that federal funds would be needed for such a project. But federal money will not be available until the extension becomes a state priority. It is time to revisit the issue of the Route 55 extension and begin the engineering studies that would provide true cost estimates.
The wind farm initiative, supported by the Sierra Club, does not appear to be held to the same level of concern for its environmental impact. We hear that the greater good outweighs such impacts.
It is time to consider the greater good for the Route 55 extension. This begins with Trenton putting up the funds for the necessary initial design studies and beginning the process in earnest of seeking federal monies.
We have talked about this for over 40 years. The time to act is here.
From the Bible: Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see. Hebrews 11:1