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Reprinted from The Times (Trenton), 10/28/97, Page A5

EPA recommends Plainsboro as alternative toll road route

By TRACEY L.REGAN, Staff Writer

Times graphic by Laura Sommerville. Scanned by T. Cosmas, WCAS

The Environmental Protection Agency says it still lacks critical details on a proposed toll road connecting Route 1 to the New Jersey Turnpike, but in the meantime has asked the Turnpike Authority to consider rerouting the road through Plainsboro.

In January, the EPA objected to an earlier version of the road, Route 92, saying its benefits were insufficient to justify the accompanying loss of wetlands.

"We raised questions about whether it was necessary in the original rejection, and they didn't give us enough information to answer whether it is necessary," said Mary Mears, a spokeswoman for the EPA. "We still need some."

In a letter sent last week to state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Shinn, the EPA asked for more information on the road's potential users, congestion on existing roads and the road's impact on historic places and preserved farmland. The agency also asked the Turnpike Authority to conduct a "no-build" analysis, taking into consideration unrelated road improvements in the area.

Route 92 would be a $311 million limited access toll road stretching 6.7 miles through South Brunswick to connect Route 1 with the Turnpike at Exit 8A. The project would require a permit from the DEP allowing the Turnpike Authority to fill wetlands in Devil's Brook in the northern part of Plainsboro.

Locally, proponents of the Turnpike Authority's plan argue that the toll road is an essential antidote for clogged local roads, while opponents from South Brunswick say the project would be built in their town to cure traffic ills caused by development in surrounding communities.

The EPA's suggested alternative, a six-lane highway, would take a southerly path along Scudders Mill Road and Dey Road in Plainsboro, before curving back north to meet the proposed route.

Mears said the route was "not mapped out to a detailed level," however, and that the EPA did not know precisely "what the impacts would be."

Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu, a supporter of Route 92, called the EPA's alternative route "devastating" to residential neighborhoods and likely to exacerbate traffic problems in the area by compounding traffic at congested points.

"Whoever proposed this is not terribly knowledgeable about local conditions," Cantu said. "What they're proposing is what's going to happen if a road is not built." He added that the plan "looks like it would take out some houses."

After the EPA -- which has virtual veto authority over state freshwater wetland permits -- raised its initial objection, the Turnpike Authority responded with a $21 million redesign of the road that reduces wetland losses from 32.9 acres to 18.4 acres.

The reduction would be achieved by lengthening the bridge over Devil's Brook from 80 feet to 500 feet, and replacing sloping road embankments with retaining walls. The Turnpike Authority has concluded there is no practical alternative to Route 92 for relieving traffic congestion in the area of Plainsboro, South Brunswick and Monroe townships.

Turnpike Authority Executive Director Edward Gross said the EPA's proposal to widen Dey Road to substitute for the proposed Route 92 alignment would be impractical because the "social and economic impacts" would be too great.

"It just doesn't work for a whole host of significant reasons," he said.

However, Gross said last night the EPA letter does not suggest a setback for the highway agency. He said the EPA's requests for more information indicated to him that the federal agency is seriously considering the Route 92 alignment the Turnpike Authority has proposed.

"I remain optimistic that the EPA will modify their decision and the Turnpike Authority' will receive their wetlands permit" to build Route 92, Gross said. "We will gladly provide all the additional technical information that the EPA has requested." After reviewing that information, the EPA will make a final decision on the road. The DEP would then have 30 days to decide whether to issue a freshwater wetlands permit.

Staff writer Tony Hagen contributed to this report.

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