It was already one of the longest and most expensive road-building projects in New Jersey, and it just got longer and even more costly.
The Direct Connection project, designed to smooth traffic flows on I-295 at Bellmawr in Camden County, hit a major tie-up in late March with the collapse of a new retaining wall on the northbound side of the highway. That collapse forced one lane to close while repairs were made, and leading the Department of Transportation to warn of “heavy congestion” at an already notorious interchange where the interstate meets I-76 and Route 42. The lane was reopened on April 21.
It’s one of the busiest intersections in the state, a focal point for traffic going to and from Delaware, on and off the Walt Whitman Bridge to Philadelphia, and to and from Atlantic City and other parts of the Jersey Shore.
The wall’s collapse, the cause of which is still being determined, has further extended an already-delayed project that began in 2013, was first due for completion in 2022 and then extended until 2028 because of utility problems, acquisition of additional rights of way, and revisions to some parts of the project including a pier system that will carry traffic from 42 northbound onto I-295. Now, it seems sure to face another delay.
DOT officials say they won’t know why the wall fell, how long it will take to repair or rebuild it, or who was responsible, until a “forensic investigator” completes a probe on the causes of the incident, perhaps by the end of April.
DOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti insisted that she won’t be able to estimate a new timeline for the highway project itself until after she has received the investigator’s report. But she acknowledged that another delay is inevitable.
Prepared for ‘lost time’
“I think realistically we have to accept there is going to be some lost time,” she said during a Facebook Live call organized by local Assemblyman Bill Moen (D-Camden and Gloucester) on April 7. “We are going to do our very best to minimize that, and try to wrap this project up quickly.”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti said the transportation department requires contractors to be covered by insurance for any error or failure to follow design plans so that the department doesn’t have to pay for any mistake by a contractor. But she said she wouldn’t be attributing the collapse to any party until the investigation is completed.
“We don’t want to start trying to assess blame,” she said. “This is an exercise in determination of what happened and how we remediate it. When we have that information we will share it with you.”
The eventual completion of the project can’t come soon enough for drivers of the 93,000 vehicles that go through the intersection on 1-295 during an average day, and the daily average of 151,000 vehicles that use I-76 and Route 41, according to DOT data.
The aim of the massive project, currently budgeted at $900 million, is to allow traffic to flow freely up and down I-295 rather than forcing it to use a series of low-speed ramps and the already congested confluence of I-76 and Route 42 to connect between the north- and southbound sections of I-295. The project will build a new bridge to take I-295 over I-76 and 42, as well as improving ramps and rebuilding some bridges over I-295 and 42.
Whatever the additional delay, it seems likely the project will eventually rival or exceed Boston’s notorious “Big Dig” that took from 1991 to 2006 to build two long tunnels to take interstate highways under the city and the harbor.
“This is a very complex project,” said Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the former executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. “It’s changing movements in several directions. It’s a very busy area, and we know that the complexities that go with this have caused inconvenience, of that there is no doubt.
“But I’m not going to be able to speculate on the short-term resolve of the repair because until we really know the root cause, we can’t design the repair. We’re going to go through the process with our forensic engineer, with our own team and with the design team. Everything that we do has to be based on data; it can’t be based on speculation. Once the data is sufficient to determine the root cause of the retaining-wall collapse, then we will go about the process of designing a solution.”
Despite the long delay and the big price tag, Direct Connection is not New Jersey’s biggest transportation infrastructure project, said Steve Schapiro, a spokesman for the DOT. That distinction goes to the Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City, which is being rehabilitated at a cost of more than $1 billion, he said.
Moen said in an interview that some delays may have been due to previous contractors, but argued that scheduling overruns were not surprising on a project of this size and complexity that is already due to last the best part of two decades.
“When you look at this project as a whole, there’s going to be issues that arise in the course of a project that spans nearly two decades,” he said.
The likely delays
Because of the temporary closure of one northbound lane of I-295, there will likely be delays from Route 42 northbound to I-295 northbound while the wall is being repaired, Moen said. Asked whether the new setback will add to delays for traffic going to and from the Shore this summer, or add to congestion on local roads, Moen said those roads are already filled with traffic, and he does not expect any worsening.
“Many local roads are already congested; I would expect that this year would be no different,” he said.
Moen said DOT has promised to keep his office informed on the status of the investigation and the resulting work to repair the wall.
Bellmawr Mayor Chuck Sauter said his community has been the “epicenter” of the marathon project, and that it was “disheartening” to see the wall collapse, but he looked forward to getting more information from the DOT on how the problem will be resolved.