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Can a $10 Billion Highway Fix One of New Jersey’s Worst Traffic Jams?

The cost of a contentious New Jersey highway-widening project has now leaped to a breathtaking height: $10.7 billion. That is more than $1 billion for each mile of traffic-choked turnpike from Newark Liberty International Airport, past Bayonne and through Jersey City toward Lower Manhattan.

The 8.1-mile stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike has become a crucial artery for trucks ferrying products to and from the nearby ports and warehouses that have boomed in the pandemic economy. By adding as many as four new lanes, the project seeks to ease traffic near the state’s import and export hubs while making much-needed repairs to a largely elevated highway that was built in the 1950s.

But as the project nears its first hurdle in obtaining the necessary permits, it has become a lightning rod for criticism over whether making room for more cars and trucks in one of the most polluted corners of the country is a smart use of limited funds.

Opponents argue that widening the turnpike will only invite additional traffic, worsening backups and the idling of vehicles on the approach to the Holland Tunnel, which is not being expanded. The ensuing snarl, critics argue, is likely to entice more drivers to seek shortcuts on local roads in Jersey City, where poor air quality and deep poverty contribute to the city’s designationas a community overburdened by environmental stressors.

The highway expansion also comes as New York City is trying to divert traffic away from its own crowded streets by adopting the country’s first congestion-pricing tolls to raise revenue widely seen as key to preventing American largest mass-transit system from going broke.

“It’s not necessarily fitting with the principles of congestion pricing in that the goal of congestion pricing is to reduce emissions,” Renae Reynolds, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said of the turnpike-widening initiative. She said the money that is earmarked for the project would be better spent improving New Jersey’s mass-transit network, “as opposed to adding more emissions burdens on communities that are already overburdened.”

Children play in Mary Benson Park in Jersey City, which is right under the elevated section of the turnpike.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

The one person with clear power to stop or alter the project, Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, first ran for office vowing to fix the state’s neglected mass-transit system and to combat climate change. During his first term, Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, stood with former Vice President Al Gore not far from the turnpike to tout an expansion of wind energy as part of the state’s ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But this fall, Mr. Murphy, who narrowly won re-election last year, asked President Biden to intervene to slow New York’s introduction of congestion pricing, drawing the ire of those who see it as the best way to get people out of cars and onto mass transit.

Mr. Murphy has also embraced the turnpike expansion, which is backed by labor unions and strenuously opposed by a coalition of environmental groups that had largely stood in lock-step with the governor for years.

“It is quite ambitious and it’s needed,” the governor said of the project this summer, adding that he believed that in the 15 years the widening is expected to take, there will be more electric vehicles, potentially reducing the volume of emissions from gas-powered cars.

Residents who live near the roadway are outraged, and Hoboken and Jersey City officials have adopted resolutions opposing the plan.

“It solves none of the problems that it claims to,” said Rob Howley of Jersey City, who is part of a group trying to block the project.

Rob Howley, part of a group trying to block the project, said it will worsen air quality. Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

“It compounds huge injustices, and it worsens air quality,” Mr. Howley said. “And it’s coming from a governor who is bragging about his environmental justice laws.”

“He approves a couple windmills offshore,” Mr. Howley added, “and he thinks he gets a free pass on everything else.”

Until last month, the authority that operates the turnpike had put the cost of the entire project at $4.7 billion. Then in November, deep in a summary of its budget, the authority revealed that the estimate had increased more than 125 percent, to $10.7 billion. Thomas Feeney, a spokesman for the authority, attributed the increase to inflation and rising interest rates.

By comparison, a proposal to tear down an elevated portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and replace it with a three-mile tunnel was estimated to cost $11 billion. The recently completed construction of two huge terminals at La Guardia Airport cost about $8 billion.

Not everyone is opposed. Political leaders in Bayonne, where a sprawling truck container terminal is expected to handle more than five times as much cargo by 2050 as it does now, support the project as a way to more efficiently cope with the truck traffic that has enabled the city’s rapid development.

The initiative also has strong backing from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, which represents more than 8,000 heavy equipment operators. Greg Lalevee, a crane operator and the business manager of Local 825, said he believed the upgrade was essential to the health of the region’s bustling ports, which are integral to New Jersey’s economy.

“We have exceeded what engineers in the past thought the traffic load should be,” Mr. Lalevee said. “This is about the economy of New Jersey. This is about a free-flowing port.”

Traffic near the entrance of the Holland Tunnel leading to Manhattan.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

The first of four phases of construction, which is slated to start in 2026, would include replacing a four-lane bridge over Newark Bay with an eight-lane span. Segments in Bayonne and Jersey City would be widened by one lane in each direction, Mr. Feeney said. The 1.5- mile stretch closest to the Holland Tunnel would be rebuilt without any added lanes, he said.

Improving outdated roads to ease congestion without luring additional cars in the process has proved challenging elsewhere in the country. This year, highway expansion projects in California and Colorado were shelved after years of planning, partly because of pressure from advocates who saw them as retrograde solutions at odds with new climate realities.

Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City, who opposes the turnpike project, is pressing for a substantive environmental impact study before construction is allowed to start. The likelihood that the state would need to use eminent domain laws to seize property near the highway makes the need for such a study even more urgent, he said.

“It’s a very, very complicated project that seems more relevant to 1970s urban planning than 2022,” Mr. Fulop, a Democrat, said.

Repairing and maintaining the existing roadway is no longer sufficient, the turnpike authority says. Planned commercial developments and an expected increase in cargo arriving at a shipping terminal along the route will overwhelm a highway that was not designed to carry so many heavy trucks, the authority says.

Mr. Murphy’s position did not appear to change with the doubling of the estimated cost, which would be funded by the authority, which gets most of its revenue from tolls on the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. Tolls are increasing on both highways by 3 percent on Jan. 1.

He largely echoed the engineer union’s argument last week in a statement, emphasizing the importance of expanding the roadway to “boost our state’s economic efficiency and vitality, especially at our state’s ports.”

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey has called the expensive turnpike project ambitious and necessary. Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Even before the cost ballooned, critics questioned why the authority would add capacity to a highway that leads to one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the region: the constant scrum to squeeze six lanes of cars into two New York-bound lanes of the 100-year-old Holland Tunnel.

“If he really wants to be the climate governor he claims to be, then he’s got to rethink this project,” said Chris Adair of Bike Hoboken, which advocates for safe streets for pedestrians and cyclists. “It’s no way to decrease greenhouse gases, that’s for sure.”

Anjuli Ramos-Busot, the director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, said there was a need for a more thorough review of alternatives to spending $10 billion to add lanes, dismantle elevated roadway and displace residents at a time when the country should be focused on reducing harmful greenhouse gases.

“Where are the other options?” she said. “Where are the other possible routes?”

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