The $900 million project to widen 50 miles of the Garden State Parkway may someday be remembered for producing "ribbons of asphalt" that spurred massive sprawl in the Pinelands, one of New Jersey's most ecologically fragile regions.
Or it could be hailed for boosting the economy of the southern Jersey Shore, where tourists had grown weary of the beach-bound traffic.
But there's one thing on which foes and proponents of the decade-long undertaking agree: The addition of a third lane, and possibly a fourth, in each direction between Toms River and Somers Point will bring big changes to the region.
Work on the 56-year-old toll road began last week between Milepost 80 in Toms River and Exit 63 (Manahawkin-Long Beach Island). The lanes will be built within the wide, mostly wooded, median.
"Nobody has a crystal ball to really know what will happen," said Frederick Moore, 68, who lives in Bass River Township about 10 miles south of Exit 63. "It's something everybody around here is wondering about."
Moore's roughly 100 acres of thickly wooded pitch pine and scrub oak have remained virtually unchanged in the three generations his family has owned the property. There are few homes and even fewer stores in the area, where the biggest draws are the campgrounds and trails in and around 26,000-acre Bass River State Forest.
After being approached by two developers, however, Moore is wrestling with the notion of selling his "legacy."
"I'm just not sure if I'm ready to cash out or if selling it would even be the right thing to do. I consider myself to kind of be a caretaker of the land here," said Moore, a self-described Piney who hunts, fishes, and hikes on his property.
Jane Nogaki, vice chairwoman of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said she worried about what owners such as Moore would do as pressure to sell increased.
The next segment of the widening, in Little Egg Harbor and Bass River Townships, will stretch south from Manahawkin to Exit 48 (Port Republic-Galloway). Work there is scheduled to begin in July 2011 and end in May 2013.
The project will give drivers in the area easier access to the parkway, and that has piqued the interest of developers, said Nogaki, who is trying to block the Ocean County Landfill Corp. from buying property off Exit 58 for a trash-transfer station. The private company, which operates the Ocean County landfill, has applied to the state Solid Waste Advisory Council and Ocean County freeholders for approval. Calls to the company were not returned.
"To say the site would be inappropriate for a trash-transfer station is an understatement," said Nogaki, who said the land includes a wetland bog and headwaters for streams and creeks that drain into Barnegat Bay. She envisions a future with "wall-to-wall" housing developments and infrastructure from the parkway to the Shore's barrier islands.
Recent parkway and New Jersey Turnpike toll hikes will pay for the first two phases of construction, officials said. A third section, between Exits 48 and 30 (Somers Point-downtown Ocean City), will be scheduled when funding is acquired, said Joe Orlando, a spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates the parkway.
Many are enthusiastic about the project, which Gov. Corzine launched Monday by digging a ceremonial shovel of dirt in Stafford Township. The 17-mile first stretch is scheduled to be finished by December 2011.
"This is going to be a very good thing for businesses and for tourists," said Rick Reynolds, executive director of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce. He said his members had long been dismayed by summer traffic tie-ups on the parkway between Toms River, where the exits lead to Seaside Heights and Island Beach State Park, and Manahawkin.
"Getting here and leaving here has always been something that can diminish the experience" of visiting the area's Shore towns, Reynolds said.
But environmental groups have contended that the project was steamrolled through approval channels, including the usually lengthy process to acquire Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) permits that the state Department of Environmental Protection requires for coastline construction.
The Pinelands Commission, the state agency charged with protecting the ecologically sensitive Pine Barrens, signed off on the plan in 2008 after the turnpike authority agreed to preserve other parts of the Pinelands in return for 143 acres of woodlands the project would destroy.
"People who own homes on Long Beach Island and want to build a new deck go through more aggravation to get a CAFRA permit than the turnpike authority did," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
He called the project a Corzine "pay-to-pave scheme" and said the "50-mile-long ribbons of asphalt" would increase sprawl and, in the long run, make traffic worse. The only beneficiaries, he said, would be developers and contractors.
Corzine's office referred requests for comments about the project to the turnpike authority.
The agency has worked for "years and years" to widen the parkway, said Orlando, its spokesman.
"It's laughable to say this project was in any way fast-tracked," he said. Those helped by it will be motorists and "the union members who will be put back to work by it. The traffic is already here, and this project responds to the need to do something about it."
Kate Slevin, director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional-policy watchdog organization in Manhattan, is not convinced that the widening will relieve congestion. And she said fixing existing roads and bridges would create more jobs.
"Building more lanes just to be stuck in more of the same traffic is a waste of drivers' and taxpayers' money," Slevin said. "The turnpike authority's own studies show that portions of the new parkway lanes will be filled with traffic as soon as construction is complete. That's not progress. That's a waste of public money."
Slevin said the authority had not explored ways to better manage traffic, such as designating lanes for high-occupancy vehicles, hiking tolls during the most congested periods, and getting Shore towns onboard with staggered rental days. Much of the summer congestion on the parkway takes place on Saturdays - "changeover" day, when weekly rentals begin and expire in hot spots such as Seaside, Long Beach Island, and Ocean City.
Some Maryland and North Carolina coastal towns without the luxury of a parkway have encouraged real estate agencies to vary their start dates.
"Some places now rent Friday to Friday or Sunday to Sunday, instead of just on Saturdays, to help relieve the congestion in and out of the resorts," Slevin said. "Nothing like that has ever been tried here. Here they just spend millions and millions of dollars and make a bigger road."