The proposed rockfall mitigation project on Interstate 80 westbound is supposed to improve the safety and mobility of travelers by reducing the frequency and severity of rockfall events impacting the roadway. The proposed project is located in Hardwick and Knowlton townships, Warren County, New Jersey.
"Monroe County residents should be shouting at the top of their lungs,” said Adele Starrs, Mayor of Knowlton Township. “Beyond just destroying a natural landmark, four years of construction is going to have a terrible impact on the economy of the Poconos and on the quality of people's lives.”
I-80 serves as a regional connection between the State of New Jersey and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is also a local access corridor through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
According the NJDOT, the existing rock slope areas along the westbound lanes of I-80 within the project limits have physical and geological hazards. NJDOT claims large overhangs, steep vertical faces, loose boulders and rock blocks have all resulted in rocks toppling down and landing on the shoulder and roadway lanes and washouts along the I-80 roadway.
Is rockfall mitigation necessary?
The I-80 Mitigation Project for NJDOT contends these rockfall occurrences along I-80 have led to crashes and lane closures and have required the deployment of New Jersey State Police and NJDOT Maintenance staff to remove rock debris and restore safe roadway access. They claim that due to these hazardous conditions and the high traffic volumes, there is a need to address the rockfall risk to motorists.
Tara Mezzanote, resident of Knowlton Township, is the founder of the I-80 Rockwall Fence and Safety Concerns at the Delaware Water Gap Coalition.
Mezzanote says the plan was originally proposed in 2011 and has evolved since then. As she understands it today, it will last at least five years.
The I-80 segment between mileposts 1.04 and 1.45, which is the focus of this rockfall mitigation effort, consists of a concrete median barrier curb flanked by narrow inside shoulders and two 12-foot lanes in each direction. The outside shoulder widths are six feet on the eastbound side and four feet on the westbound side.
“This section already has twice the average accident rate in the state because of the dangerous curves and lack of shoulder,“ said Mezzanote. “Their plan now is to shrink all four lanes to 11 feet and move them closer to the river and take all the shoulders down to one foot.”
Mezzanote claims there are frequent tractor trailer roll-overs now that force the shutdown of I-80 and creates massive gridlock. She described how traffic typically bails off I-80, into the village of Columbia or over the Portland Bridge and into Delaware Water Gap.
“When there is an accident on I-80, traffic ends up on Route 611 through Delaware Water Gap,” said Christa Schaedel, resident of Delaware Water Gap. “People who live in the borough become prisoners in their homes because it is impossible to turn onto 611 with the solid flow of traffic.”
Schaedel worries about diminishing emergency response times in the Delaware Water Gap, as it would seemingly be caught in a constant state of gridlock throughout the long-term construction project.
According to NJDOT, rockfall events have significantly impacted traffic conditions on I-80, causing it to be fully closed at least three times within the past 15 years. Additional traffic slowdowns or partial closures are also said to have occurred as a result of the poor conditions associated with the deteriorated rock slopes along this segment of I-80.
Mezzanote explained that lane closures would be scheduled for night time as much as possible, while commuters watch the face of the mountain get blasted and scraped down at least 20-30 feet. There will be a ditch in front of it, called a “catchman,” for any rockfall from the destabilization of the mountain and the mountain would then be covered in an industrial fence up to 60 feet tall.
“No more trees, plants or natural rock formations,” said Mezzanote. “Just a concrete wall over 20 feet high along that segment of I-80 with the Jurassic fence behind it.”
With deep economic and environmental concerns, Representative Rosemary Brown (R-189) is demanding answers from federal officials and stronger communication between NJDOT and the PennDOT. She is also demanding justification for the up to $200 million in federal funding that has been allocated for this project.
“This project poses an economic and environmental threat to our area, not to mention the everyday impact it will have on commuters who have to travel through the Water Gap for work,” said Brown. “Tourism and visitation will also be affected for four years, as expected construction will cause major delays. Safety is always my first priority, but it is hard to support a project that will have extremely strong impacts to Pennsylvania when there appears to be no valid safety data available supporting the project need.”
Brown is requesting the safety data be presented to justify the usage of taxpayer dollars. She says answers should be available to taxpayers and officials.
The impact of this project would be felt be everyone in Monroe County. Visitors, commuters and residents will bear the brunt of the anticipated traffic and gridlock.
“How are commuters going to get to their kids’ schools, activities, or daycare?” asked Mezzanote. “How will their families and neighbors be affected by this? Your economy depends on tourism in the Poconos. All of this needs to be quantified.”
Starrs is hoping the New Jersey will listen to the people, whatever the outcome is. “I hope they listen to it because, frankly, this is our land and our lives that will be affected, not theirs, and we have the right to be heard,” said Starrs.
Mezzanote explains that this is not a done deal. Her coalition and many NJ and Pa. politicians, such as Mario Scavello, are actively involved to stop or change the scope of the project.
The project is still in the preliminary stage and Mezzanote and her coalition are looking forward to the environmental assessment. The visual impact assessment is scheduled to be released in March.
Mezzanote is imploring everyone in the surrounding communities to get involved now and learn more about the project and its impacts on their daily lives. The coalition has a Facebook page with constant updates and there are also petitions and other resources.
A total of 25 incidents directly related to rockfall activity have been documented over a 17-year period from 2001 to 2017. Eleven incidents were identified that resulted in 14 motor vehicle crashes caused by rockfall. The majority of rockfall-related motor vehicle collisions involved a single vehicle with one incident involving two vehicles that resulted in one fatality and one minor injury.