By Ron Leir
Nothing less than disaster.
That’s what one South Kearny business leader sees ahead from the partial closure of the Pulaski Skyway, starting in March 2014, when the state Department of Transportation (DOT) plans to shut down all northbound traffic for two years to replace the 80-year-old deck of the elevated highway that carries 67,000 cars daily. Trucks are banned from the Skyway, which links Newark and Jersey City and is used as an express route to the Holland Tunnel.
Alan Lambiase, president of the South Kearny Industrial Association, said his members “have great cause for concern that the closing will push additional traffic volumes onto Truck Rt. 1&9 and will negatively impact the ability of employees to get to and from work during the day.”
The association got some backup from the town on Sept. 24 when Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos and the Town Council passed a resolution petitioning the DOT Task Force that is drafting a Skyway traffic mitigation plan “to focus its attention on the Town of Kearny.”
Lambiase said that aside from the traffic spillover onto 1&9, there’s probably going to be a “ripple effect” from additional diversions to Rt. 7 in Kearny and the N.J. Turnpike, where the state Turnpike Authority has agreed to open the eastbound shoulder of the Hudson County Extension (Rt. 78) as a third lane to accommodate the expected crush.
While the N.J. Meadowlands Commission plans to expand its federally-funded MASSTR (Meadowlands Adaptive Signal System for Traffic Reduction) program at Jacobus Ave. and 1&9 in an effort to prevent backups, Lambiase said that timed traffic signals “will be of some help but until [the shutdown] actually happens, these are all estimates at best.”
Also worth considering, Lambiase said, is bus service – which some South Kearny employees rely on to get to and from their jobs. Given the likelihood that it will take longer for routes like NJ Transit’s No. 1 line [which links Newark’s Penn Station and Kearny] to get where they’re going, “employees who work in South Kearny are going to have to make alternate [travel] plans.”
While the Hudson Transportation Management Association (TMA) is pushing for additional bus service to and from West Hudson, even if that happens, those routes would only be traveling “roads more congested than before [the closure],” he said.
It’s important to remember, Lambiase said, that “35% of the industry down here is in the transportation business,” with trucks going in and out through the day so it’s inevitable that the excess traffic “will create delayed delivery and pickup times. And some drivers make three trips a day picking up and delivering containers.”
At South Kearny’s 170-acre River Terminal industrial park, where Lambiase is sales director, its 20 tenants generate a weekly traffic flow of 12,000 vehicles alone, he said. If, for example, the South Kearny exit ramp is closed and northbound traffic is rerouted via a circuitous loop through South Kearny’s back roads, that could be a “frightening” prospect for travelers, Lambiase said.
One of the alternate detour options reportedly under consideration by the DOT, according to Lambiase, would pass along Central Ave. near the Second St. grade crossing for the Norfolk-Southern freight line, known as the “garbage train,” which uses the intersection as a staging area, typically in the late afternoon, often snarling traffic.
If northbound traffic is diverted from the Skyway onto Central, that traffic could end up backed up onto Truck 1&9 North. “That would be crippling,” Lambiase said. “I think the first couple of months [after the Skyway’s closure] are going to be painful.” Federal legislation protecting the railroad’s right-of-way makes it tough to change the railroad’s behavior, he added.
“It’s going to be a stressful two years,” Lambiase warned. “You can’t take the Pulaski off the grid and not feel the impact.”
Then, along Rt. 7 – where some of the displaced traffic will likely go – there’s the matter of the Hackensack River Bridge which, Lambiase said, “goes up, unannounced, every day,” posing further delays for motorists.
Given all these potential travel pitfalls, Lambiase said, “there’s going to be a tremendous learning curve for business owners here as to what their best alternatives will be.” Some, seeing the handwriting on the wall, have already decided what to do, he said. “A couple of companies whose leases are expiring – one with about 60 employees – and who occupy between 50,000 and 80,000 square feet, are going to move out of the area.”
Meanwhile, Lambiase noted, on Truck 1&9 in Jersey City, a company is building an 800,000 square foot warehouse that will be sub-leased to Peapod Online Groceries and Imperial Bag & Paper Co. “You’re looking at a minimum of 400-plus employees and 100 truck trips a day. It won’t come on line until late 2014 or early 2015 but when it does, that will be added to the belly of the beast.”
Kearny Police Chief John Dowie said the Police Department is “certainly sympathetic” to the association’s plight, from a public safety standpoint, given that Kearny P.D. responds to traffic disruptions from the Rt. 7 bridge and stalled trains, along with emergencies along the South Kearny stretch of the Skyway.
“If the State Police are going to take over some stretches of roadway, so be it,” Dowie said. “But we’ve got to know what happens if there’s an accident [on the Skyway] and we can’t get to it. We’ve got to know if we can shut things down and have emergency vehicles go up the [South Kearny] ramp against traffic – assuming the ramp is going to be open – there are a lot of open questions.”
Lambiase said he’s not about to bash the state for shutting part of the Skyway. “We realize the repairs are necessary,” he said. But, he added, “there could’ve been more outreach to businesses in this area and better dialogue” to come up with alternate traffic solutions.
For example, he said, no one from the state has brought up the idea of South Kearny businesses entertaining “flex hours” so that traffic volume may perhaps be spread out more each day, although that may hard to square with the Port Authority maintaining its Port Newark and Port Elizabeth operation hours on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule.
However it comes out, coping with the roadway detours is “going to be a challenge,” Lambiase said.
State DOT spokesman Joseph Dee declined to discuss travel options currently under discussion.
“The plan is to make a comprehensive report public in about a month,” Dee said. “We’re not going to [provide] a prospective plan. We feel it’s much better for us to get our ducks in a row and not to throw something together that’s just a draft. We feel it’s better to provide information when we have a plan that’s ready to be announced.”