$900M Direct Connection to Bring Relief to New Jersey Commuters
Get on the highway. Get off the highway. Get on the highway. That's what commuters in Southern New Jersey do regularly - and not because their GPS was out of whack. It's the highway, or lack thereof, which was the issue.
To rectify the problem, New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) is working on the $900 million Direct Connection project to improve safety and reduce congestion at the interchange of I-295, I-76, and Route 42. The massive project is the second largest one in the state (restructuring of the Pulaski Skyway is a $1 billion project) and has been years in the making.
In 1998, the problem statement, the first step in project development that ultimately led to the Direct Connection project, was created. Like other projects of this scope and size, it took years for the problem statement to go through the engineering and design process to ultimately make it to the construction phase. This included a full environmental study, public outreach, and the securing of funding. Then, of course, there is the design of the project, which was done in as cost efficient way as possible and to minimize the effects on the community.
Construction of the project, which has been divided into four contracts because of its size and complexity, began in the winter of 2013 and is expected to be completed in 2024. While the project was originally scheduled to be completed in 2021, increased time was needed to acquire the right of way for a bridge replacement. This aspect of the project had to be moved to Contract 3, which began in April 2017 and is expected to finish in December of 2021.
Adding a Missing Piece
John McCleerey is a Project Manager for NJDOT. He oversees the entire project, and his responsibilities include getting design plans, updating permits, advertising contracts, and managing change orders from final design to construction. McCleerey explains that there is a 1.5-mile section of highway I-295 that is missing. Commuters traveling on I-295 southbound through Camden County currently can go left to I-76 towards Philadelphia or right towards Route 42 and back onto I-295. There is no direct option to continue along Route I-295. So, commuters use ramps to get off the highway and down the road use another ramp to get back on.
Stephen Schapiro, Director of Communication for NJDOT, says, "Once construction is complete the commute will be seamless. There will be six lanes that go through directly and commuters won't have to get off I-295 to get back on." Prior to construction, commuters heading north on I-295 or Route 42 had to weave to continue to I-76 or back to I-295. This caused slowdowns and congestion, and there was great potential for accidents. Any accident would cripple the area.
When Contract 3 wraps up in 2021, two of the three lanes will open in the southbound direction on I-295, and commuters will reap the benefits.
Battling a Tough Foundation
Contract 1 was completed in November of 2016, and it included the reconstruction of several existing bridges and added a temporary ramp (to eliminate the weave noted above). While working on this contract, a challenge arose. According to McCleerey, pile driving is hard in the area due to the clay and sand layers that are in the ground.
"Once you start pile driving, you have to do it the same day because if you wait until the next day, it will be more of a challenge. So, we had to learn how to get the pile driven on the same day."
To compensate for this and to build support for the foundation of the future roadway and ramps, shafts are being drilled rather than pile driven. This saves time, and reduces vibrations and noise, which is popular with the surrounding population.
In order to build on the soft clay, the construction team used case column supported embankment and mini piles. Because they were able to do this, there was no significant settlement over time. This eliminated the need to consolidate soils (there was also no need to overburden soil) and the project could be moved forward in a timely way.
"With piles and case column supported embankment, you can build on top immediately. This method saved several years of construction time," says McCleerey. The idea to use this method was proposed in the design phase as engineers recognized the issue. McCleerey added, "It's settling exactly as we expected."
The Importance of Public Outreach
Extensive outreach is done on all projects, particularly on one of this size and scope. Leading up to the project, there were meetings with elected officials and NJDOT project team members. There were public information centers where people could learn about the project and ask questions. Schapiro says there were dozens of public information centers going back 10 to 15 years. NJDOT also created a website, which the department only does for large projects.
Schapiro explains the website has project details clearly noted so the public can be kept informed. In addition, if major changes to the project arise, press releases are written and shared. There's also a community outreach team associated with the project.
A significant amount of work has already been completed and much is going on. Contract 1 is complete. Contract 2 involves building a new bridge and ramp, building noise walls, and upgrades to the storm water management. The contract began in June of 2014 and is expected to finish in 2019. Contract 3 began this past April and is expected to finish in December of 2021 with the main focus being the completion of the new I-295 mainline direct connection over I-76/Route 42.
Although commuters are already experiencing some of the benefits of the project, while the construction is ongoing, it can be hard for commuters to appreciate the enhancements. "Most drivers notice an issue like flooding when it occurs, but they don't notice when it is as it should be," says Schapiro. He adds that when Contract 3 is completed, commuters will certainly notice and appreciate the improvements.
Massive construction projects such as this one involves many unknowns and surprises are not uncommon. Therefore, it can be a challenge to remain on budget. Schapiro notes that NJDOT is on budget, and they intend to keep it that way. "On a project of this magnitude, often times things even out as some things come in below cost while other things cost more," says Schapiro.
As construction moves along, commuters will no longer have to go off the road to get back on. Drivers in South Jersey and Philadelphia will appreciate a more direct route when the Direct Connection project is completed.