In the 1950s, builders of the interstate highway system in southern New Jersey constructed an interchange to channel traffic from north-south I-295 primarily onto east-west I-76 and State Route 42, assuming that motorists were headed only to Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J. But a funny thing happened on the way to the present. Throngs of local and out-of-state travelers through the Northeast’s dense New Jersey corridor discovered I-295 as a cheaper, and often less traffic-clogged, alternative than the New Jersey Turnpike, which it parallels.
As a result, the connection has become a circuitous bottleneck for traffic—which some estimates peg at more than 250,000 vehicles per day—as well as a safety hazard. Media reports say the maze of on-off ramps requiring quick speed changes has generated one of the state’s highest crash rates.
While the need for a fix by the New Jersey Dept. of Transportation was clear to officials back to the 1980s, the best construction approach and the funding to make it happen took a lot longer. The agency considered at least 26 interchange plans, said the Star-Ledger in a 2013 article. But more than three years later, the 295-76-42 link called “Direct Connection” that will straighten out I-295 through the area is about halfway to reality—a federally funded $920-million effort that is set to complete in 2023.
Until Gov. Chris Christie more recently finagled funding for the $1-billion-plus Pulaski Skyway upgrade near Jersey City, Direct Connection gave South Jersey something to gloat about as the state’s largest-ever construction project.
Even so, some longtime locals are lamenting the upgrade’s demise of the interchange’s famed “Al-Jo curve,” named for the tavern once located at the notorious sharp left-hand curve of exit ramps that reduced three travel lanes to two.
The curve now will be replaced in the last of the project’s four construction phases with a ramp to be built under I-76, says John McCleary, NJDOT Direct Connection project manager (see map diagram).
Early work to install intelligent transportation system technology to regulate traffic flow on feeder roads that began in 2012 wrapped up in early 2015. McCleary says Phase 1 work awarded in a $160-million contract to PKF-Mark III, which involved replacement of two bridges and roadway widening for future stages, is now largely complete, although a year late due to “utility issues,” he says. Conti Enterprises has been executing the $153-million Contract 2 since 2014, already finished with noise walls along I-295 and stormwater management upgrades.
McCleary says progress is “slightly behind,” noting extensive pile-driving activity required. But he says erection of the bridge from I-76 eastbound to I-295 northbound has begun and is set for completion this summer, while the new ramp from I-295 southbound to I-76 westbound should be open to traffic “in early 2017.” He says use of column-supported embankments is accelerating work progress in allowing faster soil settlement.
The project manager says that the delay won’t affect Contract 3, which was awarded to contractor South State Inc. on Jan. 13, with a bid of $192.2 million. Scope of work under that contract will focus on completing the I-295 mainline Direct Connection ramp over Route 42/I-76. It also includes work on an adjacent road overpass and ramps to Route 42. “At the end of Contract 3, anticipated in 2021, I-295 southbound will be partially opened in the new configuration,” says McCleary. Meanwhile, historic preservationists and NJDOT are debating whether a circa-1720 era house in Bellmawr that has been modernized has landmark status to save it from demolition for a sound barrier, says a Dec. 30 online news report.
McCleary says the project’s last piece, termed “Missing Moves,” will build much-anticipated new ramps for never-before-exiisting connections between Route 42 and I-295. “We’ll start that in 2019,” says the executive.