By KATHY CHANG
METUCHEN — Representatives from the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) will meet with borough officials to discuss the possibility of making long-awaited improvements to the Interstate 287 and Route 27 interchange, according to Dan Triana, a spokesman for NJDOT.
Residents of Bridge Street have been seeking improvements to I-287 and Route 27 for more than a decade in the hope of relieving tractor-trailer traffic in the area.
“We have been waiting for magical things to unwind,” said resident Lorraine Taurone at a Borough Council meeting on March 21. “We were told there was money for it and we were going to get it.”
Planned improvements to I-287 and Route 27 in Metuchen, dubbed the Southwest Gateway Plan, include constructing a full-service interchange near the Wal-Mart store in neighboring Edison Township on Route 27 and Vineyard Road, for an entrance and exit ramp from Route 27 south to and from I-287 north.
Currently there is a ramp from Route 27 south to I-287 south and, on the other side, a ramp from I-287 north to Route 27 north.
Councilman Jay Muldoon said a major missing piece for the proposed interchange is funding, which is unfortunately not just sitting and waiting in state and federal budgets for a plan to be put in place.
Mayor Peter Cammarano said without funding from the state and federal level, there’s a possibility that the project would not happen.
“This is a tremendous challenge,” he said, noting that New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund runs out in July and the state’s budget currently does not have any plan to replenish it.
The Wal-Mart on Route 27 south was built in 2008, and plans for a nearly 19,000-square-foot expansion were approved in 2011. The shopping complex also now includes a Costco, a PetSmart and a Triple AAA Auto Service.
Initial plans for building the Wal-Mart in 2004 were the impetus for a lawsuit the borough instituted against the developer of the big box store in 2005.
Borough officials had said they had nothing against Wal-Mart itself but noted in the lawsuit that the development at the site would have a negative effect upon the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the borough.
At the time, a grassroots group of Edison residents, the Edison Community Association, also made it known that they were concerned about the potential traffic implications of what the big box store plus a small retailer would bring to the area and petitioned NJDOT for traffic improvements to complement the shopping center.
Funds from a settlement of the lawsuit filed by Metuchen were used for a 2010 interchange study conducted by Maser Consulting, an engineering consulting firm based in Red Bank, which estimated the construction of new full-service interchange would cost approximately $43 million.
Maurice Rached, of Maser Consulting, had told officials that for safety purposes, all interchanges operate on eight movements. The interchange in Metuchen is missing four movements, which creates undue traffic in residential areas when motorist look for short cuts.
Motorists utilize Bridge Street to get onto Durham Avenue, which has a ramp onto I-287 north.
Don Walker, who told the council he has lived on Bridge Street since 1952, brought the brochure he got in the mail in 2010 on the proposed interchange improvement plans by Maser Consulting and showed it to the council.
He said the area has a problem with trucks over four tons driving on Bridge Street.
As recently as 2013, I-287/Route 27 Interchange Improvements were included in proposed projects in the updated Middlesex County Transportation Plan adopted by the county Planning Board.
The goals of the updated Middlesex County Transportation Plan are to provide the essence and direction in the type of actions, strategies and investments that the plan supports to improve the county’s transportation system and make it more responsive to present and future needs.
The interchange improvements were part of Metuchen’s Circulation Plan Element created by Looney Ricks Kiss Architects through a “Reconnecting Your Community” smart growth grant in November 2009.
In the report, it notes that the principal arterial route serving Metuchen is I-287.
“The current interchange at Route 27 is not a full interchange and is overburdened with a difficult geometry,” the report stated, adding that the increased development in the Route 27 corridor in Edison, including the Walmart shopping center adjacent to I-287 had only exacerbated the problem at this interchange.
The borough and Maser Consulting were working with the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) on a plan to reconfigure the interchange ramping and signalization at the time.
The proposed plan included bringing the ramps from the northbound direction to a signalized four-way intersection with Bridge Street.