Pilar Lopez Rodriguez now spend three hours of her day driving back and forth between South Brunswick and Princeton, almost double the time her commute took before the New Jersey Department of Transportation shut down the bridge on Route 518 in Rocky Hill. Her commute used to be about 40 minutes each way. Now it is 90 minutes.
“Every day I try a different route to find a better way,” she said. “The closure of the 518 bridge has been a nightmare for those of us who need to get to Route 206.”
The bridge repair was supposed to be completed by Aug. 5. But last month, Gov. Chris Christie ordered a statewide construction shutdown of “nonessential” projects as the battle with the New Jersey Senate over tax proposals, including a gas tax, and funding sources for the state transportation projects continued.
The decision to shut down the bridge on Route 518 and begin work on July 5 baffles many residents, given that work was halted a week later. Back in early July before the bridge closure, reader Jeannie Weakliem and others predicted the nightmare commuters are now facing could happen.
“Someone better make sure this is going to be fully funded by our governor before they close it so it can be finished on time,” she wrote on the Planet Princeton Facebook page. “The last time they shut it down one way, traffic was backed up all the way up River Road, on Crescent Avenue past the light at 206 and 518.”
As the stalemate goes on, area commuters continue to suffer. More than a dozen readers sent Planet Princeton comments describing how the bridge closure has affected their commutes. Some residents and officials are so fed up that they have begun to plan rallies and other events to protest the delays.
“Something needs to be done,” said Rosemarie Scianna said. “The traffic on River Road going towards Route 27 is unbelievable. Sometimes backed up to the water treatment plant.”
One reader said the 1.5 mile stretch of Mapleton and Academy Road from Route 1 to Route 27 in Kingston can now take up to 50 minutes to travel by car during rush hour.
Some people have stopped patronizing area businesses to avoid the traffic. Others have altered their family routines.
Kingston resident Coby Green-Rifkin said the bridge closure has resulted in ridiculous traffic on Laurel Avenue, River Road, and other area roads during commute hours. River Road is experiencing such a high volume of traffic that it completely backs up, and Route 27 is also congested.
“It has gotten to the point that I’m no longer patronizing businesses in Rocky Hill or Skillman because I don’t want to deal with traffic on River Road getting back into Kingston,” she said. “I’m sure it is also putting a significant dent in Rocky Hill small business revenue.”
A reader named Jessica Ann said she can’t make the commute to work and drive her kids to all their activities on time because of the delays.
“As a working parent, life is already challenging to juggle tight timelines,” she said. “I have had to drop my child out of baseball, which is devastating for him, especially since he won first place in the spring season. But I can’t physically get him there with all the traffic. It has doubled my commute time. The worst is seeing my kids suffer, we get one to two hours less time to spend together per day, plus all they see is a stressed out mom trying to make it all work rushing them around. It sucks.”
When other area roads are closed due to paving projects or accidents, the commute can be even worse. Some readers reported that it took them 90 minutes to get from Lawrenceville to Princeton when Mercer Road was closed for paving. The completion of the bridge project on Carter Road has also been stalled, adding to traffic nightmares in the area.
Reader Susan Soash worries about what the traffic will be like in September.
“I can’t even imagine what’s going happen when school starts,” she said. “It’s already added on extra time to my commute and when school starts. I’m worried that I’m just going to be late for work everyday.”
Carla Zimowsk said her 15 to 20 minute commute from Rocky Hill to Princeton has often turned into a 40 to 60 minute commute that mostly involves idling and burning gas in long lines of traffic.
“Many years ago, I purposely chose to live in this location and pay the taxes for it for the very sake of a shorter and normally easy commute plus many alternate routes,” she said. Now her main routes and all her alternate routes are little more than clogged arteries, she said.
“Many of us were braced for all of this as the summer road projects began, although many of us don’t understand why they were started in the first place if this was going to happen,” she said. “We understood that summer would be the least disruptive time and we knew the importance of these projects. So we made our alternate plans – planning strategic vacation times away or simply planning staycations so as to not add to the summer congestion…Even with all of those individual adjustments, I have been in long lines of traffic where I have suddenly heard the distant sound of an ambulance and wondered if it was going to be able to get through the traffic.”
Readers have seen large tractor-trailers turning onto Route 27 from River Road in Kingston because they are being detoured due to the bridge project on Carter Road in Lawrence. Truck drivers end up making their way to Route 518 instead, and heading down Route 518 to Rocky Hill, where they meet the dead-end bridge project and then must go down River Road. The tractor-trailers have also been seen attempting to cross the single lane bridge at Griggstown, which is experiencing an unprecedented amount of competing traffic as drivers play chicken trying to cross between Montgomery and Griggstown, readers said.
Zimowsk and other area residents have tried various commuting options, including biking to work, which they say has become more dangerous as cars compete for lane space and tractor-trailers barrel down Route 27. Biking sometimes also means climbing over bridge barricades with a bike in order to get to the other side of the road and stay on the bike path rather than ride on paved roads with lots of traffic.
“People’s alternate resources, schedules, and routes are running out as are the levels of patience,” Zimowsk said. “As we begin to see the return of school buses and standard work schedules, we are going to begin to see what I have been calling `the heart attack waiting to happen.’ God help us is we get another hurricane.”
Residents have called police departments, fire departments, local officials and state representatives, and say each time they make a call, they receive the same response — contact the state Department of Transportation, which they then do. Residents are wondering when, if ever, they will receive responses. Officials from many area municipalities also have submitted letters to the NJDOT and Christie, demanding that essential projects continue and be completed. Elected officials in Montgomery Township, for example, have cited safety concerns in their letters urging the NJDOT to restart the work on the bridge.
“This state of affairs is simply unacceptable and poses safety risks to our residents and the residents of neighboring towns,” said Montgomery Mayor Patricia Graham. “With the bridge out there are increased response times for emergency responders, increased traffic throughout Montgomery and increased motor vehicle incidents, particularly at the Griggstown Causeway. All these problems will be exacerbated if the 518 bridge is not repaired before the start of school in September, when traffic in town is expected to increase by a third.”
Lawmakers have been unable to agree on a new funding scheme for the state’s transportation fund. Christie blamed the New Jersey Senate on Tuesday, and signed an executive order allowing the state treasurer to redirect funding from any state department to pay for essential projects or those with matching federal funding.
According to the order, essential projects are those necessary “for the protection of the health, safety and welfare” of residents. At a New Jersey Statehouse press conference Tuesday, Christie expressed confidence in the state’s roads and transportation network.
“The roads are fine,” he said. “You don’t hear regular folks complaining about this. You hear editorial writers and politicians talking about it more than others.”
Area residents hope the state will deem the Route 518 bridge work in Rocky Hill “essential.” Meanwhile, they are still preparing their rally signs. A group of residents met last weekend to coordinate efforts, and a new Facebook group to coordinate rallies has been set up called “Bridgegate 2.0 Rocky Hill Bridge.”
On Friday morning, officials from Franklin Township kicked off the bridge protests during rush hour, standing in front of the bridge holding a sign that read “Christie Fix This Bridge.”
The contact for the state regarding the bridge closure is NJDOT Office of Communications Regional Manager Meredith Hammond. She can be reached at (609) 530-2110 or firstname.lastname@example.org.