National News

For New Jersey Commuters, a Sequel to the ‘Summer of Hell’

Posted June 5, 2018 9:37 a.m. EDT

The elevated highway that connects the New Jersey Turnpike to the Lincoln Tunnel already is the most traffic-choked stretch of pavement east of Chicago. Now, after decades of patching it up at night and on weekends, the time has come to strip it down and rebuild it.

Or as Gov. Andrew Cuomo might warn the hordes of commuters who rely on the tunnel to reach Manhattan: Get ready for more than two years of diabolical torture, starting this summer.

Last year, Cuomo famously forecast a “summer of hell” for train riders while Amtrak conducted emergency repairs at Pennsylvania Station. Still, despite having to cope with the rerouting of many trains, commuters generally found the eight-week-long disruption to be tolerable.

But the rebuilding of Route 495 promises to be a much longer slog. The New Jersey Department of Transportation, which controls the highway, warns that “the existing traffic delays and congestion that occur today are expected to become much worse beginning in the summer of 2018.”

That is an alarming prediction about a roadway that has been ranked the worst bottleneck on the East Coast by the American Highway Users Alliance. Drivers spend a combined 3.4 million hours a year trapped in traffic at the tunnel, estimates the alliance, an advocacy group.

The central portion of Route 495, a viaduct that carries the highway up and over several busy roads and freight-train tracks, is a fitting symbol of the shabby state of so much infrastructure in the New York region, from its sputtering subway to its delay-plagued airports. More than 80 years old, the bridge is structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. But unlike many other decrepit bridges and tunnels in the area, Route 495 is finally getting an overhaul, creating a major challenge for travelers between New Jersey and New York.

“It’s going to be a very painful process for drivers to endure,” said Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesman for AAA Northeast.

The most disruptive work will begin around midsummer, but signs along roads leading to Route 495 already warn drivers to “PLAN ALT ROUTE.” There’s just one problem with that bit of advice, though. As Sinclair explained, “it’s a near physical impossibility to find any alternative to that roadway.”

There are no parallel thoroughfares, and the local streets are narrow and congested. The obvious options are the Holland Tunnel, which is nearly as clogged as the Lincoln, or the George Washington Bridge, the busiest bridge in North America. Either choice would take drivers bound for Midtown Manhattan miles out of their way.

AAA’s best advice to Lincoln Tunnel users, Sinclair said, is to “leave early — leave extra early.”

The morning rush into New York lasts from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., state transportation department officials say. During that period, the traffic averages about 9,200 vehicles — including 650 buses — per hour. In the evening, the outbound traffic is even heavier, averaging more than 10,000 vehicles per hour.

All of that traffic flows across eight lanes, four inbound and four outbound. But once the rebuilding of the roadway begins in earnest, one lane in each direction will be closed off to be torn out and replaced. Those closures will effectively reduce capacity by 25 percent. Joe Nolan, the dean of New York-area traffic reporters, now on KTU 103.5 FM, said he could foresee trouble. “If there’s one lane closed in both directions all the time, yeah, there’s going to be a lot of traffic problems,” Nolan said.

The first phases of the $90 million project began in late winter on the underside of the bridge. Once known as the North Bergen Viaduct, it dates back to the days when the first tubes of the Lincoln Tunnel were constructed. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which completed the original tunnel a few days before Christmas in 1937, also built the elevated highway that leads to it.

The Port Authority turned Route 495 over to the state of New Jersey about 40 years ago. But the only copies of the plans for the viaduct remained in the Port Authority’s offices in the north tower of the World Trade Center, which disappeared in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

So when crews prepared to start stripping the girders that support the roadway down to bare steel, they had to do some reverse-engineering of the entire structure. After blasting off layers of paint, they found several sections that had rusted through, leaving holes as big as silver dollars. Reinforcing the steel could extend the life of the viaduct by 75 years, state transportation officials said.

The viaduct is about five years younger than the Pulaski Skyway, the much longer, elevated highway that leads from the Turnpike toward the Holland Tunnel. The Pulaski, too, was deemed functionally obsolete before the state began a $1 billion project to rehabilitate it several years ago. At about the same time this summer that the Pulaski is expected to reopen to two-way traffic, the first lane closures on Route 495 will occur, transportation officials said.

When the inbound lanes of Route 495 become clogged, a stream of cars backs up toward the Turnpike and onto Route 3, a highway that wends west through Secaucus, past the Meadowlands sports complex and into the suburban beyond. State transportation officials said they intended for Route 3 to incur the brunt of the additional delays, rather than risk backing up traffic through the tollbooths on the Turnpike. For Capt. Carlos Goyenechea, who oversees traffic management for the Secaucus Police Department, that spells a headache in his town. Goyenechea figures that as many as 38,000 vehicles a day could be displaced by the road work and many of their drivers will try to detour through local streets.

“We do expect backups on Route 3 and we expect backups in our town,” he said.

He said he intended to assign additional officers to try to keep traffic flowing during rush hours, especially at the busiest intersections. “The good thing is that this is starting during the summer, when traffic is at a minimum,” he said. “Obviously, the first couple of days are going to be the hardest.”

Goyenechea said he hoped that drivers would adjust their commutes by switching to public transit, or by driving into the city less often or outside peak hours.

In the summer months, there may be space available on buses or trains into Manhattan. But after Labor Day, when everyone has returned from vacation, there will be scant space for additional riders.

New Jersey Transit’s trains to Penn Station, and the tunnel they traverse to get there, are already chock-full. Likewise, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and the buses that travel to and from it, are essentially at full capacity.

One trick to the overhaul of Route 495 will be maintaining the express bus lane, a contraflow lane that gives inbound buses exclusive access to one of the outbound lanes during the morning rush. At some point, workers will have to shift the express bus lane to the adjacent lane, taking out two outbound lanes in the mornings.

To make way for the buses, workers will have to drill holes in the roadway to hold the yellow, rubber pylons that will serve as a temporary divider between the inbound and outbound traffic. Transportation officials said they do not expect the work to have a significant effect on the outbound traffic, either in the morning or evening rushes.

One reason they cited was New Jersey’s plan to block local traffic from entering the westbound lanes in North Bergen. Steve Schapiro, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, said that detour should stop between 1,200 and 1,500 vehicles per hour from merging into the peak flow out of Manhattan.

Schapiro said that it would be hard to predict in advance just how the work would affect traffic, but he said there would be “significant delays and congestion.” He said the department estimated that travel times would increase by seven or eight minutes for Manhattan-bound commuters and about half as much for those headed west — an additional 10 to 12 minutes a day for a round-trip between home and work.

“They’re both going to suffer,” Nolan, the veteran traffic-watcher, concluded. “It’s going to be a problem.”