Trains carrying millions of gallons of crude oil in tanker cars pass slowly through the intersection, halting traffic on 69th Street. The street is jammed with traffic because it crosses railroad tracks on the CSX rail line. These traffic tie-ups had become a daily routine, with the rail bed severing access to West Side Avenue for a significant section of the township.
All that changed a week ago when Gov. Phil Murphy, NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett, and Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti joined North Bergen officials in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the 69th Street Bridge.
It’s been a long time coming.
Fittingly, one of those trains passed underneath as the ribbon-cutting got underway, showcasing the disruption the trains caused on the street.
Development on the North Bergen overpass began more than 10 years ago, but the project, overseen by the state’s DOT, stagnated due to delays that went unexplained by the DOT.
The bridge was under the jurisdiction of the state, so township officials did not have the means to fund or expedite the process by hiring different developers.
The bridge was one of three introduced in 1994 through negotiations between North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco and then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. The other two bridges were on Secaucus Road and Paterson Plank Road. Those overpasses were completed in 2003.
“You couldn’t go near it, you couldn’t go around it. It was a virtual nightmare.” — Nicholas Sacco
A glacial pace
Sacco dubbed the incomplete overpass, which loomed over a crossing in the CSX train yard, the “bridge to nowhere.” He claimed that the contractors, Tar Heel Enterprises, had no experience building bridges.
“John Corzine had a ribbon-cutting and groundbreaking in 2008,” Sacco said. “It was supposed to be done by 2011. Every imaginable excuse to not complete the job was given from that point on. The nickname ‘bridge to nowhere’ was very fitting. You couldn’t go near it, you couldn’t go around it. It was a virtual nightmare.”
DOT officials who hired Tar Heel Enterprises made deadline promises year after year, which went unmet.
“The company didn’t know how to build it,” Sacco said. “The bonding companies had to be called in. It became one excuse after another, until the level of frustration was beyond anything. With Gov. Corzine it was being built, but he lost office, and then NJ Transit became totally underfunded. Over six years, we went to meeting after meeting, but even the meetings stopped because no one was going.”
Cutting through the red tape
Gov. Murphy made completing the bridge a top priority in the annual DOT capital program this year, and hired new contractors, CJ Hesse, Inc., who finally completed the bridge to the relief of motorists throughout the township.
Now that the bridge is up and running, the CSX line will have no impact on traffic flows to West Side Ave.
“A press release put out on the day ground was broken [in 2008] touted that this project would pay immediate benefits for the community … a little poetic license with the word immediate, apparently,” Murphy said. “So much for good intentions. The only action residents and local leaders saw was an endless game of finger-pointing, as the bridge to nowhere sat unfinished. Businesses suffered, and drivers fumed as safety was allowed to languish.”
In this year’s DOT capital program, Gutierrez-Scaccetti and Kevin Corbett, executive director of NJ Transit, established a partnership to once and for all end the burden on local commuters. Gutierrez-Scaccetti took a ride to see the bridge to nowhere for herself, and decided then and there to put her foot down.
“It was hard to fathom that there could be a project in New Jersey that could be 2,200 days late,” said Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who made it to the ribbon-cutting, though her mother had died the night before. “She would’ve said, ‘if you didn’t show up, I wouldn’t see you on TV, and you’d be in trouble.’”
Killing two birds …
Demonstrators from a coalition of environmental groups attended the event, hoping to get in a word with the governor about the proposed North Bergen Liberty Generating (NBLG) plant.
More than 40 groups have banded together to lobby against the plant, citing concerns about its environmental impact on the region’s wetlands. Though the demonstrators were confined to one side of a barricade, Murphy stopped briefly to hear from them at the end of the ribbon-cutting.
Asked where he stood on the project, Murphy later said that he wasn’t on either side of the fence at this point.
“I’m probably going to bore you with the same answer, but it happens to be the truth,” Murphy said. “The Department of Environmental Protection goes through a process that takes a long time, collects data, analyzes, and assesses. They’re in what I’d call the early stages of that, and that’s where it stands. We have to make sure that we understand all the facts before we make any decisions.”
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