By Donald Wittkowski
Sea Isle City is supporting efforts by neighboring Upper Township to have Exit 20 of the Garden State Parkway turned into a full-fledged interchange – an issue that has festered for more than 30 years.
In the meantime, Sea Isle officials continue to lobby to have the Parkway’s Exit 17 also converted into a full, four-way interchange to handle the bustling summer traffic to the beach town.
“It’s just a source of congestion without a full interchange there,” Sea Isle Councilman Jack Gibson said of Exit 17.
City Council approved a resolution last July calling on the New Jersey Highway Authority, the Parkway’s state operating agency, to build a four-way interchange linking Exit 17 with Sea Isle Boulevard, the main artery in and out of town.
In an interview Wednesday, Gibson said the highway authority still hasn’t responded to Sea Isle’s resolution seven months later.
“At least there could have been a polite acknowledgement. It does seem a bit unusual,” Gibson said of the lack of a response.
While Sea Isle waits for a reply for Exit 17, it is joining forces with Upper Township to push for a full interchange at Exit 20. Sea Isle’s Council unanimously approved a resolution at its meeting on Feb. 13 supporting Upper Township.
The resolution notes that Upper Township has been requesting a full interchange at Exit 20 for more than 30 years. It criticizes the “continual delay and avoidance by state officials” to consider the project.
“With an increase in population of over 591 percent in Cape May County during the summer months, and with tourism being the economic lifeblood of this region, an efficient and sensible traffic management system is essential for the safety, convenience and enjoyment of our residents and visitors,” the resolution says.
Exit 20, located near the busy intersection of Route 9 and Route 50 in Upper Township’s Seaville section, is “severely limited” in its current configuration, according to the resolution. It serves as an exit ramp to Upper Township for northbound traffic on the Parkway. It also allows traffic to enter the Parkway southbound.
Motorists cannot use Exit 20 to hop on the Parkway’s northbound lanes or get off at Upper Township while heading southbound.
Upper Township officials want the highway authority to expand Exit 20 to include four-way access. In lobbying for the project, they cited a recent survey conducted by the Upper Township Economic Development Advisory Commission that found 90 percent of the respondents were in favor of a full interchange.
The South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization’s 2016 Regional Transportation Plan characterized a full interchange at Exit 20 as “a critical need” for the safety of the region, especially if there are evacuations during coastal storms or other emergencies, Sea Isle’s resolution says.
Meanwhile, Gibson is hopeful that efforts to turn Exit 20 into a full interchange will also focus more attention on Exit 17. He wants the New Jersey Highway Authority to undertake a study of all of the Parkway interchanges in Cape May County to determine if changes are needed to meet current traffic demands.
Sea Isle officials believe a four-way interchange at Exit 17 is needed to improve both safety and traffic flow, particularly on summer weekends, when the resort town is flooded with tourists.
Exit 17’s limited access causes bottlenecks that spill off the Parkway onto Sea Isle Boulevard and cascade back to Route 9 in Seaville, Gibson explained.
“Some Saturday mornings in the summer, Route 9 fills up with visitors coming from the Philadelphia area, and it backs up almost to Seaville,” he said.
In its current configuration, Exit 17 is split into two parts. Exit 17’s off-ramp on the southbound side of the Parkway merges with Sea Isle Boulevard. For motorists wanting to access the Parkway’s northbound lanes, they must follow Sea Isle Boulevard out of town and then jump on a separate on-ramp.
However, there is no southbound access to the Parkway at Exit 17 off Sea Isle Boulevard. In addition, there is no exit to Sea Isle off the Parkway’s northbound side. Sea Isle lacks an off-ramp northbound at Exit 17.
To access Sea Isle off the Parkway’s northbound side, motorists must take Exit 13 into neighboring Avalon and then crawl along local roads. The trip through Avalon eventually leads to the Townsends Inlet Bridge, crossing over into Sea Isle’s southern tip.
One shortcut that is known by local motorists is to drive a little farther north on the Parkway and then make a U-turn at the nearby Ocean View service plaza. That gives them access to the Parkway’s southbound lanes and the Exit 17 off-ramp to Sea Isle.
Gibson, a civil engineer, has a unique history involving Exit 17. Now 83 years old, he helped to build Exit 17 in the 1950s when he took a job as a laborer with a company that was a construction contractor on the Parkway.
He was an engineering student at Villanova University when he was working on Exit 17. He went on to complete his engineering degree. Now, some 60 years later, he is pushing to have the old interchange rebuilt to make it capable of handling modern transportation needs.