Commuters like Zach Zitollo dread what’s coming: thousands of drivers headed for the Lincoln Tunnel on Route 495 will get squeezed into a bottleneck starting Friday night. That’s when two lanes will close — one in each direction — on the bridge crossing Routes 1 and 9 in North Bergen. Vehicles will have to merge from four lanes down to three. Traffic will jam and back up, and it’ll stay that way for two and a half years while workers rehabilitate the crumbling bridge.
“It’s going to be some days in the next two years. We’re all just going to have to bear with it. I wish there was a solution,” said Chief Kevin Flaherty of the Secaucus Police Department.
“We are very sensitive to the fact that this project is going to impact folks’ lives for the next two and a half years,” said Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation. “This is construction that can’t wait. If we want to restore infrastructure to what it should be, we’re all going to have to take a deep breath and be patient.”
New Jersey’s transportation commissioner explained the 80-year-old bridge shows signs of extreme corrosion. You can literally see through holes rusted into the steel. But the timing for this bridge rehab project couldn’t be worse — coming during the so-called second summer of hell as NJ Transit cancels multiple trains every day, leaving even fewer options for beleaguered commuters.
“If the governor inherited anything that looks like a ‘perfect storm,’ it would be a project like this,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
Just during the morning rush, 9,200 vehicles per hour pass this point. One hundred fifty thousand vehicles a day travel Route 495. The lane closures will snarl traffic and send frustrated drivers seeking escape routes down side streets. Police warn that they’ll be waiting to turn cars away and issue tickets to any hapless motorist who blocks the box in Weehawken, Union City, North Bergen or Secaucus.
“We will shut down our local roads from Route 3 to keep the traffic on Route 3 because we can’t have it clogging up all our roads and it’s not moving,” Flaherty said.
“Think of people coming off 495 and trying to traverse local streets into Union City. It could really, really cripple us. But there’s a plan in place. We’re working closely with DOT,” said Union City Police Chief Richard Molinari.
“And our main goal is we have to make sure the roads are open for police, fire, ambulance and school buses,” said Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner.
To help ease congestion, officials have detoured the 31st Street ramp from Kennedy Boulevard away from 495 westbound. Commuting alternatives? The exclusive bus lane will continue to operate, so commuters can try park and rides at North Bergen and at the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop on the Turnpike. Or, take the George Washington or Goethals Bridges, or the Holland Tunnel. You could also skew your work hours or work from home.
“I hate to say, if you have to go to New York, don’t. But, there’ll be moments in time when people may feel that way,” said Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
Advice from AAA if you’re going to drive this route: leave early. Gas up the night before, and don’t be the guy who runs out of gas and jams up the traffic jam. More advice: grit your teeth. Nobody’s going to be happy about this.