By Ron Leir
So you’re traveling on the Belleville Turnpike (Rt. 7), a rainstorm hits and it’s high tide. Next thing you know, your car is cascading through flood waters and you’re hoping you don’t lose your brakes.
Seasoned regional travelers are used to this predicament, driving through a sort of no-man’s land pocketed by marshes and creeks, but that doesn’t make it any easier to navigate, particularly on foggy nights with poorly-illuminated roads featuring one humpshaped stretch that makes you think you’re riding a bucking bronco.
Steady, motorists: relief is on the way, albeit slowly. The state Department of Transportation (DOT) is riding to the rescue, but at a trot-like pace, with work not expected to begin for another six years.
DOT engineers welcomed the public to a forum, held last Thursday at Kearny Town Hall, to outline – with the aid of some conceptual sketches – their plans for drainage improvements along a roughly two-mile stretch of Rt. 7 (between mileposts 1.7 and 3.8) prone to flooding.
In case anyone in the area needing reminding, a DOT statement notes that the flooding “often results in closure of the roadway, compromises safety of the roadway, disrupts traffic flow, and contributes to deterioration of the pavement.”
That excess water “overtops the road at several locations,” DOT notes.
The cause of this malaise, according to DOT, is “a combination of tidal flooding and lack of drainage systems within the (Rt. 7) corridor ….”
So what to do? DOT’s action plan calls for:
• Raising the roadway profile by as much as 2.48 feet where possible by dumping layers of asphalt on top of the 40-footwide road. DOT engineers estimate it will take some 40,000 tons – or 600,000 cubic feet – of asphalt – the equivalent of filling a football stadium to a height of 10 feet.
• Installing steel sheeting or concrete barrier curb along the roadway “where raising the roadway profile is not practical due to existing bridges that currently have substandard vertical clearances.” A clearance of at least 16.5 feet is required by DOT standards and that’s not the case at either the Turnpike’s eastern spur bridge or the Amtrak bridge, according to DOT.
• Installing new storm drain systems at 14 locations to move storm water from one side of the road to a suitable outfall.
• Building three new pump stations with treatment systems and pump pits to drain excess water during tidal surges before being discharged. Each station would be equipped with a main pump and a backup powered by natural gas. DOT would maintain the pumps.
With these improvements, engineers believe they’ll be taking care of “80% of the existing problems” – designed to deal with a high tide of up to 5.5 feet – but not enough to cope with a hurricane-force storm.
DOT engineer/project manager Kamlesh Shah projected the overall cost of the drainage improvements at $25 million and estimated the job would take two years to complete. DOT hopes to get 80% of the funding from the Federal Highway Administration, with a 20% match from the state, he said.
Right now, the project is in the initial design phase which is expected to cost around $1.5 million, Shah said.
The job, which would be bid out, probably won’t start in earnest until 2018, he said. Time is needed, not only to develop design specifications, but also to secure permits from a host of regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and N.J. Meadowlands Commission, which have jurisdiction over wetlands; the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, the N.J. Historic Preservation Office and Federal Highway Administration, Shah said.
As the job proceeds, DOT plans to maintain traffic flow with at least one lane in each direction, with some intermittent shutdowns.
For David Newton, who runs Newrent Inc. Trailer Rental & Sales, a firm with a 60-year legacy, located on Rt. 7 off Sellers St., the job can’t start soon enough.
Newton, who came to DOT’s public meeting to learn more about the project, said: “It’d be nice if they did something about the flooding. Everytime it does flood, the police block the road (Rt. 7) from the top of the hill at Schuyler. And that disrupts my business.”
Also curious about what will happen was Stuart Engelke, chief engineer for WMCA/570 AM radio, which has a transmission station in the marshes off Rt. 7. During last fall’s hurricane, Engelke said, water came over a berm and damaged a catwalk. “It’s gonna cost us $1 million to fix it,” he said. The tower rising from the catwalk function as transmitters. “If any part of the tower goes under water, it shorts out,” Engelke said. “If that’s not there, we’re not on the dial.” DOT engineers advised Engelke to take up his problem with the Army Corps of Engineers and Engelke said the station’s been waiting for months for the Corps to permit repairs to proceed.
Meanwhile, DOT plans another Rt. 7 infrastructure improvement project – repairs to the 1,200-foot-long humpshaped bridge over Conrail property – two miles west of the Wittpenn (Rt. 7) Bridge.
DOT will replace its superstructure, from the deck up, and do minor repairs to its sub-structure, said DOT spokesman Joe Dee. The project is now in the “final design” phase and work is slated to start in spring 2014, he said.