A group of elected officials from more than a dozen New Jersey and Pennsylvania municipalities will bring their opposition to a rockfall project on their borders to the public Wednesday.
The officials have joined the state’s historic preservation agencies in expressing concerns about the project.
For several weeks officials virtually discussed New Jersey Department of Transportation’s plans to cut into the side of Mount Tammany within the Delaware Water Gap in an effort to "mitigate" rockfalls onto Interstate 80 which runs between the base of the mountain and the Delaware River.
The $64 million project the DOT said will take five years, has been proposed as a way to keep rocks from falling on the highway below. DOT officials said there has been one fatal accident caused by rocks, but have provided no details.
The project area is part of what the locals call the S-curves which sees an average of about 70 vehicle accidents per year, and several documented fatalities, not related to rockfall. That accident rate is almost twice the state average and the project will not address the road conditions causing those accidents.
Knowlton Mayor Adele Starrs said local officials have asked for meetings with NJDOT to find other safety solutions and be mutually agreeable, but the department has decline.
Instead, the DOT has formed a "public advisory group" in which members are asked to share information about the project and "share with the (DOT’s) Project Team what local networks NJDOT should use to establish and maintain a productive dialogue with the local communities."
Starrs said DOT has barred elected officials from attending or participating in the "public advisory group."
As a result, municipal officials scheduled their own public meeting for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Upper Mount Bethel Community Park, 1535 Potomac Street. The park is off Route 611, just west of the Portland bridge over the Delaware River.
Under Pennsylvania’s rules for public meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, attendees must wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines.
Attendees may bring their chairs or blankets to the meeting as officials discuss the five-year, $64 million project in the Delaware Water Gap and how it may impact the livelihoods and quality of life for residents and visitors.
Officials expeted to attend will represent: Hardwick, Knowlton, Belvidere, Blairstown, Hope, Independence and Liberty in New Jersey and Portland, Delaware Water Gap, Lower Mount Bethel, Upper Mount Bethel, Forks, Plainfield and Smithfield in Pennsylvania.
Historic groups concerned
Starrs, who has been vocal in her opposition to the project since 2017, said she received news on Monday the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office has invalidated the letter of no concern it issued a couple of years ago for the project.
She said the Pennsylvania office was never told the project would be in plain view of hikers along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail which travels over Mount Minsi, the peak of the water gap on the Pennsylvania side of the river.
In 2018, the New Jersey State Office of Historic Preservation objected to the project because NJDOT did not offer any commentary about how the view would be affected from the New Jersey side of the trail, which carries a national historic designation for its entire length and is a unit of the National Park Service.
"The PA office indicated to me that the documentation they received did not include the full segment of the project nor the preferred design alternative," the Starrs said, adding the office said it did not have "complete and accurate information."
Lack of full information was the reason for New Jersey’s office to withdraw its letter in 2018.
"If information circulated about this project is inaccurate, how can we trust that what is being said?" she said.
The mayor said she talked to the Federal Highway Administration (FHwA) on Monday after the deadline for the project’s Environmental Assessment was extended by a year.
The EA had been scheduled to be completed in March, with a 30-day public comment period. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requires the assessment be done as a determination whether a more in-depth study is warranted.
The project is being funded by federal money which means FHwA has the ability to stop the project or require more study.
The FHwA has been inundated by letters from environmental groups, recreational associations, individuals and the National Parks Conservation Association, demanding that a Environmental Impact Study be done.
That kind of study is a more in-depth look at the economic, environmental, societal and historic impacts the project will have on the surrounding area.
The water gap is part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the 14th most visited National Park in the United States. The gap is considered a natural wonder, part of the reason the park was created in the 1960s.