For the last several years, life along the White Horse Pike in Magnolia has been disrupted by an intersection reconstruction project that so far has produced few visible improvements -- and seems to have no end in sight.
Traffic backups, bumpy blacktop, gravel sidewalks, missing curbs, shifting lanes, and periodic closures or detours have become facts of life for residents, businesses, and the estimated 50,000 vehicles that daily choke their way through the dangerous junction of Evesham Road and the pike, aka Route 30.
People in Magnolia, a salt-of-the-earth Camden County borough of 4,300 that promotes itself as “One Square Mile ... of Friendliness,” are unhappy. And as someone who regularly drives that part of the pike, I understand their frustration.
I mean, how complicated can this $4.3 million undertaking be? Dramatic progress on the state’s far more ambitious and expensive ($900 million) I-295/Route 42 "Direct Connection” mega-project in nearby Bellmawr has been made in recent years, while an array of orange barrels and “road work ahead” signs decorates what looks like a largely unchanged Magnolia intersection.
“People are constantly asking us what’s going on at White Horse Pike and Evesham,” said Mayor BettyAnn Cowling-Carson, who began lobbying for improvements to the intersection not long after she was elected in 1991. The project finally was announced in 2012 and contracts were awarded in December 2014.
“I’ve been told different answers numerous times about when it will be finished, but my understanding is that the water pipes and sewer pipes and drainage pipes are so old that something is always breaking, or is not marked outright,” Cowling-Carson said.
Mairin Bellack, deputy director of communications for the state Department of Transportation, acknowledged the public frustration, but noted that while people might not see progress, “the majority of the work is underground” and is continuing.
“The focus is to make the intersection safer" for drivers and pedestrians, she said, adding, “We encountered some issues and utility work delays, but we will move forward with construction during the winter to get the project back on track and completed on time."
Bellack would not estimate when that would be but said the state is “committed to finishing this project for the community.”
Preparations for widening the pike and Evesham Road to accommodate dedicated left turn lanes -- these will be a most welcome improvement -- appear to have been at least partially completed. “But every time they dig, they run into a problem and have to redraw [the plans]." Rick Krause, a borough council member and lifelong Magnolia resident, said. "And then they hit another problem.”
Work may have dragged on and on, but the dramatic transformation of the nearby and nearly moribund Lions Head Plaza shopping center into the mixed-use Cooper Towne Center -- with nearly 200 new townhouses and 400,000 square feet of retail space -- has been completed. And Royal Farms opened its first South Jersey convenience store on the southwest corner of White Horse Pike and Evesham in November 2017.
But locally owned businesses said the state of the pike and the avenue has been a headache, if not a hardship.
“It’s been years,” said Lori Trieu, who owns Sky Nails, a busy salon just west of Evesham Road. “Sometimes our driveway is blocked. Sometimes they block a lane and traffic backs up. One day last year we had no power."
Said Amy Farry, owner of Woodchucks, a small-engine repair shop that’s done business on the pike for 25 years and has had electrical or water service interrupted during the work: “It’s a very dangerous intersection. There are accidents every day. So I’m glad it’s going to be better. But it’s taking way too long."
I couldn’t agree more.
I also think it’s unfortunate that the intersection’s ragged appearance makes such an unappealing gateway to Magnolia.
Like many South Jersey towns, the borough is far more pleasant than it may seem from the highway. Magnolia has tree-lined streets, solid neighborhoods, and a lovely central green space, Albertson Park, dedicated when the municipality was incorporated in 1915.
The borough is even home to one of the seven classic McDonald’s “golden arches” signs left on Earth. The famous sign is on -- where else -- the pike.