Fourteen towns on both sides of the Delaware Water Gap have joined forces to oppose a plan by the New Jersey Department of Transportation to protect a section of Route I-80 from falling rocks.
The formation in mid-September of a group, Bi-State Elected Officials United to Preserve the Gap, steps up local opposition to the multimillion-dollar project that has been on the drawing board since 2009 and is scheduled to begin a four-year construction period in 2023.
The project would install concrete barriers up to six feet high, and use lines of timber and fences to prevent rocks falling on the roadway from the iconic rock faces that tower above a section of the highway carrying some 50,000 cars and trucks a day.
DOT says there’s a history of rocks and trees falling onto the highway from the unstable rock face overlooking about half a mile of the highway in Hardwick and Knowlton townships in Warren County. There were 14 crashes resulting from rockfall on that stretch between 2001 and 2018, one of which resulted in a fatality, the department says.
Five other New Jersey municipalities are members of the group: Hope, Liberty, Independence, and Blairstown townships, plus the town of Belvidere.
Fixing the wrong problem
The critics say the DOT’s rockfall-related accident record is dwarfed by some 70 accidents a year that take place on a nearby “S-curve” section of the highway that would not be addressed by the approximately $64 million in federal funds that the department is now budgeting for the rockfall project.
“Is that really the best use of taxpayer money or should you be paying attention to the 70 car accidents a year that are caused by these trucks?” asked Adele Starrs, mayor of Knowlton Township. “It just defies common sense to have 70 to 80 car accidents a year, and not to have that amount of money do anything to fix that problem.”
Mayor Kevin Duffy of Hardwick Township said the state’s claims about the rockfall threat are also undermined by changes in its reported number of rockfall incidents, and by data from State Police showing some of the objects in the road over the years have been “non-fixed objects” that could have been debris such as mufflers or hubcaps rather than rocks. “It’s inconceivable that all of them were rocks,” he said.
Critics say the DOT’s statement of the need for the project is based on computer modeling that overestimates the rockfall threat to road safety. They also warn of major traffic delays at times the highway is closed for construction, causing economic damage to local businesses including the Poconos’ tourist industry. And they also say the scenic Water Gap would be scarred by the barriers.
“There’s this federal rockfall-mitigation project that isn’t based on actual rockfall,” Starrs said. “It is based on hypothetical computer modeling that shows what could happen in a catastrophe. I think we can all agree that, yes, we have roads that are next to mountains, and in a catastrophe, yes, something could happen. But it’s very hard to sell to the public a $64 million project when there aren’t actually any rocks falling.”
Asked why DOT would pursue the project for so long and at significant taxpayer expense if there wasn’t a genuine need, Starrs said DOT appeared to be seeking to win the approval of the federal Department of Transportation.
“It’s a feather in their cap,” she said. “They receive a lot of federal funds, and it allows them to say, ‘Look at these great things we are doing for the state of New Jersey.’”
State sees a responsibility to act
DOT says the area between mileposts 1.04 and 1.45 on I-80 have been identified as having the state’s highest potential for rockfall, and that the department has a responsibility for ensuring that it doesn’t happen on the busy interstate.
“A series of large open fissures exists in the area near the steep vertical rock wall, and if not stabilized, there is the potential for a major rockfall incident to occur,” said Brian Ahrens, a DOT spokesman. “Once a risk is identified, NJ DOT has a responsibility to take measures to improve safety and mitigate the risk of a major rockfall incident.”
Starrs dismissed the DOT’s assessment that the site has the state’s highest potential for rockfall, saying that’s misleading because it has addressed all the others.
“It’s not that this is such a dangerous area that they have suddenly become aware of, it’s that they have already taken care of all the other areas that are truly dangerous,” she said.
Ahrens said the westbound right lane would have “infrequent closures” during the project, and that traffic will be stopped in both directions for 15-minute periods during blasting, about which the public would be notified in advance.
He rejected critics’ claims that officials such as local mayors have been excluded from public meetings on the project.
“This statement is false,” he said, noting that DOT has so far held 24 meetings with government and regulatory agencies. Since 2017, the department has held four briefings for local officials to give them an opportunity for input on the project. The last meeting for local officials was a Bi-State Leadership Summit in July when the 14 municipalities from New Jersey and Pennsylvania were invited to participate.
Ahrens declined to speculate on why the 14 towns have jointly opposed the project.
The next milestone in the long-running fight will be the release of an official Environmental Assessment which will determine the project’s impact on the environment. The critics are hoping the report, which is due out next year, will show significant impact, in which case the project will have to undergo a much more detailed review that yields an Environmental Impact Statement.