By Bruce A. Scruton and Colleen Wilson, NJ Herald
KNOWLTON/HARDWICK - New Jersey’s transportation commissioner cautioned one mayor about speculating and sensationalizing, but provided few answers herself when asked why it had not provided answers to questions posed during and before Wednesday’s invite-only meeting about a controversial project to prevent rocks falling on Interstate 80.
Called a "summit," Wednesday’s event - which was not open to the public or media - was ostensibly for the NJ Department of Transportation to present its case on the rockfall mitigation project within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area that has ballooned in cost and the breadth of construction work proposed.
In the question/comment period which followed the DOT’s video presentation, Lance Prator, mayor of Portland, Pa., claimed the NJDOT had not done a study of effects of traffic during construction and said traffic along Route 611 will increase to unsafe levels.
His borough sees the effects when even slight delays, which cause GPS maps to light up, send drivers off the interstate before it enters the Delaware Water Gap and through his village.
He noted the road, which goes through the gap on the Pennsylvania side of the river, is near several tourist-attracting trails and part of a bicycle route that is very narrow and will likely see increased trailer truck traffic, although there are signs prohibiting vehicles more than 8 feet wide.
"There’s going to be a lot of deaths there," he said.
DOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti immediately challenged Prator’s statement and said there has been talk "which tends to sensationalize something that doesn’t need to be sensationalized."
Prator is not the only one from the Pennsylvania side of the river to complain about the DOT project which began with a study more than a decade ago and has grown from an estimated project of about $5 million and a few months of work, into a $60 million, five-year project during which the already-narrowed interstate highway would get squeezed even more.
The narrowing of the highway, which is already narrow by interstate design standards, is going to get tighter to give construction crews room to blast away up to 30 feet of rock from the face of Mount Tammany and erect steel fences which in some places will be 50-60 feet above the roadway. Also planned is a large pyramid structure at the base of a talus slope. When the highway was built, the plans included using blasted rock to create a much smaller band along the bottom of the slope.
"This project doesn’t exist in a vacuum," said Sandra Newman, a supervisor from the town of Lower Mount Bethel in Pennsylvania. "Detours, official or not, will occur as they do now when traffic gets heavy," she said.
She disputed DOT’s claim that this project will not impact traffic in Pennsylvania, and added the effects of the project "are extensive and wider" than just New Jersey and noted that there already is a Pennsylvania Scenic Byway that includes part of Route 611.
"This (project) will dramatically alter the view of the water gap," Newman said.
Richard Gardner, the Warren County freeholder director, called the proposed barriers "a Jurassic Park-type fence" and wondered if federal officials really understand what the project would do to the "beautiful water gap."
He said if a vote were taken among people in Warren County, "90%, 90% plus would vote ‘No’ on this enormously expensive project."
After saying there are plenty of alternatives, Gardner said the project would "make contractors richer and federal taxpayers a lot poorer."
In the early 2000s, the Federal Highway Administration was given oversight of a federally-funded program to identify and modify, if possible, areas of highways which had the potential to see rockfalls and landslides.
On the mathematical scale used to identify such areas, NJDOT officials say that Interstate 80, as it passes below Mount Tammany, has the highest rockfall potential of any site in New Jersey.
The DOT has said there was at least one fatality in the past two to decades which it attributed to a rockfall incident. However, in spite of records requests from town officials, the public and media, the DOT has refused to release any details on how the accident occurred.
In her closing comments, the commissioner said the refusal was because the department does not release "confidential" information.
However, when the New Jersey Herald requested reports from the New Jersey State Police on fatal accidents in and on both sides of the project area, they provided the investigating troopers’ full reports, including witness statements.
The only things redacted were dates of birth, driver license and Social Security numbers and street addresses.
However, the division said it could only provide records going back six years. Earlier records are shipped to DOT for archiving and to use for their traffic/accident studies.
The lack of openness in records was also mentioned by Knowlton Mayor Adele Starrs who said she saw a mention of "blasting" in one of the project documents and requested further information.
NJ DOT refused her request, she said, but she was able to get the information when she filed a similar request with the Federal Highway Administration. The information, she said, showed a four-month period of twice weekly blasts in the project area.
In her reproach to the Portland mayor about sensationalizing, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said, "that's the kind of stuff that you're putting on the record that needs to be supported in fact."
Kevin Duffy, mayor of Hardwick, the other New Jersey township where the project will be done, said he would continue to ask for more public meetings for residents on both sides of the river.
Rosemary Brown, a Pennsylvania state legislator whose district includes the water gap area, said she would like to see more detail and information on some 14 "events" which one report labeled as rockfall incidents.
"I would definitely like to see some greater detail to those episodes, and some more information because I think what you've heard on this call is the true necessity and understanding" of local officials who want to see facts. "I think we have to do our best to really look again at the risk benefit and some of that information, to me, it's still very much lacking."
Brown also said, "There was very strong disappointment on my end on the communications from the New Jersey and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation together," going on later to say, "And there's absolutely no justification for the fact of pushing aside one state over the other. We have to be good neighbors, we have to be smart neighbors, and that's extremely important ."
Also on the call was Josh Gottheimer, the New Jersey congressman whose district includes the northern half of Warren County.
"I've heard overwhelmingly from local residents and local officials, and many others and so many business owners who are rightfully worried that this proposed plan is unnecessary that it would be ineffective," he said.
Gottheimer, who has also requested that a hold be placed on any federal funds for the project, added that the project would impact "the beautiful environment of Warren County and the small businesses that rely on ecotourism here."
He said there is no proof that other solutions can’t achieve safety and noted that through his efforts, the DOT recently installed warning signs and lower speed limits through the S-curve which local officials say is the actual problem.
Those measures were taken earlier this year and there has not been enough time to see if they have had the effect of slowing traffic and reducing accidents in that area.
In her closing remarks, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said agency officials are forming two advisory groups, one made up of emergency service providers in the region and the other for nominated members of the community.
The public can also make comments on the project directly to the department at I80rockfall@dot.nj.gov.