Neighbors fear affects of turnpike widening

Residents say proposed truck lane will bring hwy. closer to homes


Florence Torok’s East Foch Avenue house in Milltown is falling apart at the seams, and it will only get worse, she believes.

Doors hang askew, and a family room added on is slowly separating from the rest of the house. Making matters worse, she said, she and her husband cannot open windows or enjoy their backyard, for fear of soot and noise.

“We love living in this circle, but we don’t love what’s going on behind us,” Torok said.

The Toroks and other nearby residents say they are suffering from issues brought about from the nearby New Jersey Turnpike, and they are concerned about plans for an additional lane in the area, which they say will bring the problems even closer to them.

“Most people would tell you, ‘If you’re dealing with the turnpike, you can’t do much,’” said Lee Weissenburger, of JFK Drive. “But you can’t believe that. You’ve got to hope something can be done.”

Weissenburger brought attention to the turnpike-widening project and issues relating to it at the Oct. 9 Milltown Borough Council meeting. He complained that the New Jersey Turnpike Authority held an information session in Monroe regarding the slated work, but not in Milltown or East Brunswick. According to Weissenburger, attending the Monroe meeting did not prove fruitful.

“They were just there taking questions, not answering,” Weissenburger said.

Mayor Gloria Bradford told Weissenburger at the council meeting that she shared in his frustration, and has been unable to reach anyone at the Turnpike Authority to discuss the project.

Milltown Environmental Commission Chairman Alan Godber said he also tried in vain to reach out to the authority.

“We have been ignored,” Godber said. “I’m sick and tired of it.”

Turnpike Authority spokesman Joseph Orlando did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

The turnpike project is slated to widen the toll road from interchanges 6 through 9, and add a truck lane at Exit 8A, the area that affects Milltown residents.

The Turnpike Authority invited the public to write letters voicing its concerns about the project, with an Oct. 12 deadline. Now, questions or concerns must be submitted to Richard Raczynski, the chief engineer of the Turnpike Authority.

According to several residents, the authority claimed that each person who wrote would receive a personal response, but no one has heard back yet.

The mayor and council encouraged residents to contact state Sen. Bob Smith, who represents Milltown, and urge him to get involved on their behalf. Councilman Mike Skarzynski said he plans to call Smith, with whom he has a personal relationship, later this week to address the issues.

“I feel that these people have a legitimate concern over there,” Skarzynski said.

Around 1990, residents said, those who live near the turnpike began experiencing negative effects from the roadway. Noise, vibrations and pollution from vehicles have all posed problems for those living in close proximity to the highway, they said.

Sound barriers installed to lessen noise pollution have proven ineffectual, residents said.

“I live over there, and the sound barrier never worked,” said Councilman Joseph Cruz, who lives on West Joffre Avenue. “You can hear every truck going down the turnpike.”

Cruz, who lives about a block and a half from the turnpike, said his family and others nearby had to hire exterminators to deal with displaced rodents that found their way into homes as a result of the last widening.

In the Toroks’ case, they have rehung and sanded doors in their home to correct problems caused by vibrations, but it is a losing battle, they said. They no longer entertain in their backyard, and use central air conditioning because they cannot open the windows.

“It’s horrendous. You can’t hear yourself think with the windows open,” Torok said, adding, “My windowsills are always black.”

With the proposed addition of a truck lane, the presiding fear is that the situation can only get worse.

“You’re putting 40- to 80-pound trucks right up against the wall, as close as they can get to the homes,” Weissenburger said. “This is going to be one big snowball again, and a lot of people are going to get hurt.”

During its last widening project, the Turnpike Authority bought some homes adjacent to the turnpike, then sold them at reduced prices due to their locations, Cruz said. The authority also paid a claim to the Toroks after the foundation of their home cracked due to the vibrations.

“The amount they paid me wouldn’t begin to do what has to be done,” Torok said.

Torok said her house is losing its value. Torok, Weissenburger and a handful of others in their neighborhood live closest to the turnpike. Weissenburger said his garage is only 25 feet from the highway, and will likely get about 20 feet closer if the proposed work takes place.

“They’re expecting traffic to double,” Weissenburger said. “My house right now settled a foot since the last widening. The sound barrier wall is actually sinking and moving.”

Aside from these larger problems, Weissenburger said his home is constantly vibrating, with nails popping out from the sheet rock as a result.

“It’s going to get worse,” Weissenburger said. “Based on what we’ve had so far, it can’t get any better.”

Borough officials said they want answers to questions regarding the impacts of the project. At the council meeting, Borough Attorney Patrick Diegnan said the option exists for the town to take some type of action to stop the project from moving forward, if all else fails.

“If they’re just going to do business as usual … that’s really not going to help my residents,” Cruz said. “My residents are my concern, but obviously they’re not their concern.”

The widening project took the place of the controversial Route 92 proposal, which was heavily opposed by South Brunswick and other local municipalities due to concerns over increased sprawl and damage to wetlands.

In December 2005, the potential toll road was dealt a crippling blow when $175 million in funding was taken out of its budget and given to the turnpike project. Severely wounded but not quite dead in 2006, Route 92 made one last attempt at survival in the form of an Army Corps of Engineers study that advocated for its construction.

South Brunswick and other municipalities acted swiftly to mobilize against the road before the project had a chance to regain its momentum. Faced with overwhelming opposition, the Turnpike Authority officially killed the project, stating that it would devote all its efforts toward expanding the turnpike to relieve traffic.