Heading to the Jersey Shore this summer? If you take Routes 42, I-295, and I-76 — popular highways that merge and connect Philly with the southern beaches — brace for another season of delays and headaches.
A $900 million road-construction project that began five years ago on those highways may continue to wreak a bit of havoc and exacerbate the notorious congestion that has long plagued that area.
Originally slated for completion in 2021, the Direct Connection project is now expected to take three more years. It includes highway bridges, ramps, realignment, and road widening and is designed to reduce congestion and improve safety, especially on the hazardous swath where the three highways converge.
"Being a major artery for Philadelphia commuter traffic via the Walt Whitman Bridge, and a connection to the southern New Jersey shore, Route 42, and the Atlantic City Expressway, this interchange is the busiest in the region," the state Department of Transportation said on its website.
And good news, travelers, the DOT is doing its best to ease congestion, in part by banning lane closures this holiday weekend.
"NJDOT limits construction activity in the summer on Shore routes except for emergency work," DOT spokesman Matthew Saidel said in an email. "For Memorial Day Weekend no lane closures are permitted starting at 6 a.m. Friday, May 25, through noon Tuesday, May 29, unless there is emergency work that is necessary. Motorists are reminded to plan extra time and expect congestion on highways to popular vacation destinations."
And emergencies do arise. Last month, a sinkhole developed on the shoulder of Route 76 westbound, in the vicinity of the Direct Connection project, and construction crews had to stabilize the area, Saidel said. It took nearly three weeks, due to delays caused by all the recent rain.
Saidel also said there may be lane shifts on the three highways when construction is underway, and motorists must slow down in work zones. Crews will continue working on the project, but will be behind barrier curbs and off the roadway, he said.
Throughout the summer, there will be some single-lane closures at night, between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., while double lane closures are only allowed from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., Saidel said. Motorists should check NJDOT's website at www.511nj.org for real-time travel information, or follow NJDOT on Twitter @NJDOT_info or on the NJDOT Facebook page.
Frank Filipek, mayor of Bellmawr, a borough divided by the sprawling, Shore-bound highways, says the traffic seems worse than before, although it has been a major problem throughout his 15 years as mayor. "I don't know if it's because of more cars or what, but they seem to back up because there are so many different roads being changed and a lot of detours," he said.
After 5 p.m., traffic sometimes backs up one to two hours, especially on Fridays and Saturdays when people head to the Shore, he said.
Michael Shute, who lives on Bellmawr's bustling Creek Road, said that he won't attempt to fight the traffic and go to the Jersey Shore this year. He is happy to stay home, which he said is peaceful now that the construction project is no longer affecting his neighborhood.
"When they were doing all the work on the new bridge, between 2014 and 2016, the house shook," he said. The Creek Road bridge, which was reconstructed, spans the interchange. Workers also demolished the house next to Shute's to create space next to the bridge.
Filipek welcomes the improvements, begrudgingly. "It's a mess, but they're working on widening the roads and changing the intersections. They're doing the best they can, but it's a big project. It will be great when it's finished," he said.
>> READ MORE: Your Ultimate Shore Guide 2018
The project has also forced the tiny borough to delay its ambitious plans to redevelop a huge landfill ,which was closed years ago and capped, he said. "We need to see their final plans before we can go ahead with ours," he said. Originally, the DOT had proposed building a road through the landfill, but after a redesign, it will now go around the site, he said. The borough wants to create a commercial center and a park at that location.
The DOT said its completion date had to be adjusted because it needs to acquire more properties for the project.