By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Three years ago, Sea Isle City officials began lobbying to have the Garden State Parkway’s Exit 17 turned into a full interchange to help relieve congestion during the crush of summer tourist traffic heading to the beach town.
City Council adopted a resolution in July 2017 calling on the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the Parkway’s operating agency, to convert the exit from its limited two-way configuration into a four-way interchange capable of handling heavy traffic.
Councilman Jack Gibson, who is championing the project, said the turnpike authority never responded to Sea Isle’s resolution. However, Gibson was pleasantly surprised to learn that Exit 17’s reconstruction into a full interchange is one of the proposed projects in a massive $24 billion capital plan for both the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike.
“It’s good news to me. It’s certainly an appropriate project that would help to save lives and improve traffic flow,” he said in an interview Sunday.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority has proposed a slew of construction projects as part of its request for a toll increase on the Parkway and Turnpike. Under the plan, Parkway fares would increase from $1.50 to $1.90 at the main toll plazas and from 50 cents to 65 cents at the exit ramps. Turnpike tolls would go up by an average of $1.30, according to media reports.
A turnpike authority document describing the projects that would be funded by the proposed toll increase lists Exit 17 in Sea Isle and Exit 20 in neighboring Upper Township as among the two-way Parkway interchanges that would be expanded into four-way interchanges.
The toll increase, which has come under criticism for being proposed during the coronavirus pandemic, has not yet been given final approval by the turnpike authority.
According to the description of the project, Exit 17’s expansion would cost $20 million and would take 27 months to plan and design and another 18 months to build. It would require a series of county, state and federal environmental permits.
The project would fill in the “missing movements” at Exit 17 between the Parkway and Sea Isle Boulevard, the main artery in and out of town, the description says.
Sea Isle Boulevard recently underwent a $12.7 million reconstruction that elevated the road to protect it from flooding. Gibson believes that Exit 17’s reconstruction would complement Sea Isle Boulevard’s overhaul to provide much smoother traffic flow during the peak summer tourism season.
“We have these backups in the summer,” he said. “This project, taken together with the improvement of Sea Isle Boulevard, will expedite traffic and will be safer.”
Gibson, a civil engineer, has a unique history involving Exit 17. Now 86 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.
Gibson was an engineering student at Villanova University when he was working on Exit 17. He went on to complete his engineering degree. Now, more than 60 years later, he is pushing to have the old interchange rebuilt to make it capable of handling modern transportation needs.
Exit 17’s limited access causes bottlenecks that spill off the Parkway onto Sea Isle Boulevard and cascade to Route 9, Gibson explained.
In its current configuration, the interchange 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 hop 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.
“That movement is not what the road is designed to do,” Gibson said of the U-turn through the service plaza.
Warning that traffic congestion will likely get worse, Gibson believes that planning for the Exit 17 project should begin immediately to avoid wasting precious time.
Following is a link to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s proposed capital improvement plan, including a description of the Garden State Parkway Exit 17 project on page 19.