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Multiple construction projects annoy Bellmawr residents

It's a sunny morning in Bellmawr, but a thunderous boom pierces the air. Then another, and another. The bangs echo for blocks. At nearby businesses, the earth shakes. Photos rattle on walls, startling sleepy residents, but the skies remain clear, because, although it sounds like a storm, Mother Nature has nothing to do with it.

It's a sunny morning in Bellmawr, but a thunderous boom pierces the air. Then another, and another. The bangs echo for blocks. At nearby businesses, the earth shakes. Photos rattle on walls, startling sleepy residents, but the skies remain clear, because, although it sounds like a storm, Mother Nature has nothing to do with it.

The small town, located where Route 42 and I-295 and other thoroughfares converge, is in the midst of construction that has sent residents complaining to their neighbors, their mayor, the New Jersey Department of Transportation - and some to lawyers.

The goal is to link I-295, I-76, and Route 42 via ramps so there are direct connections among the highways. The New Jersey Department of Transportation's solution: overpasses that run through Bellmawr, Mount Ephraim, and Gloucester City.

The federally funded, $900 million project's completion date is 2021, dismayingly distant for many in the affected areas.

The banging from the highway work isn't the only source of their headaches. A Wawa store under repair directly across the street from the I-295 project and an ecological center redevelopment project about a half-mile down the block have made Creek Road, a major thoroughfare in the small town, the epicenter of construction.

Mayor Frank Filipek sounds weary as he discusses all the construction.

"I can't blame the people for being upset," he said. "All the traffic, noise, dirt are in Bellmawr."

Still, Filipek is optimistic that the direct connections will entice businesses to set up shop in Bellmawr, from which they will have access to major roadways.

"When it's all finished, it's going to be great for Bellmawr," Filipek said.

Township resident Joann Ardite sees things differently. She lives on a street bordering the construction.

"Every day you hear it constantly in your head," Ardite says of the banging that sounds in the background as she speaks.

She said she and her neighbors are angry. Some have told her about photo frames shaking on their walls. Others worry about the effects of heavy-duty trucks constantly traveling their streets. She wonders what impact all the shaking is having on her house's foundation.

The pounding, according to Transportation Department spokesman Daniel Triana, is from the hammering of sheet piles from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The sheet piles are used to create support structures that hold the earth back to enable concrete to be poured, he said.

He estimated that the banging should be done by next winter.

Jim Ryan, owner of A Acme Plumbing & Heating Inc. said his employees have trouble getting in and out of the parking lot because of the construction, and he has had to take items off shelves because, with all of the shaking, he's afraid they might fall and break.

Looking out from his shop, he has seen tractor-trailers pop tires when they are forced by traffic to take tight turns and hit curbs on the temporary bridge on Creek Road.

The progress he has seen thus far seems slow, Ryan said.

Jeff Deangelis, 18, said that at night, construction crews illuminate the surrounding area, and the lights shine into the back windows of his living room. The addition of traffic lights also has created congestion in the surrounding streets, he said.

"I just want it to be finished," he said.

Ardite said she had written multiple letters to Filipek, but has not heard back.

Filipek said he has received numerous complaints and has been in constant contact with the Transportation Department trying to keep construction noise limited to the day so as not to disturb residents. He praised the department's cooperation.

Right now, he said, a major concern is the strain the construction is putting on volunteer first responders. He said that he has seen a drastic increase in accidents on the Creek Road exit of Route 42 as a result of the roadwork, and that first responders have received between 600 and 700 phone calls to construction areas since the roadwork began in 2014.

Thomas Brennan, a professor of civil engineering at the College of New Jersey, said the highway redesign was overdue.

"I grew up in the area, and it's always been a problem," Brennan said. "Since the mid-80s, it's been a problem; the construction was necessary."

Brennan, originally from National Park, said Route 42's design forced motorists to cross several lanes of traffic and slow down to around 35 m.p.h. to get onto I-295. He said the result was congestion, which in turn caused accidents.

Brennan, who is not associated with the project, said the timetable for its conclusion sounds appropriate - if everything goes to plan. With major roadwork, unforeseen difficulties often arise, such as contracting issues and weather, he said.

He said that while there are always other ways to mitigate traffic issues, ramps probably are the best strategy to address environmental and land acquisition concerns.

"It's probably one that is the most cost-effective with the least impact," Brennan said.

Drew Kapur, partner at Duane Morris L.L.P. in Philadelphia, is less enthusiastic about the outcome. Kapur represents St. Joachim Parish and St. Mary's Cemetery in Bellmawr.

Currently, I-295 runs between the church and the cemetery. The state has acquired six acres of cemetery land to construct temporary bridges - and eventually overpasses - that come within eight feet of the mausoleums, Kapur said. As planned, the new additions will take away part of the church's parking lot.

The church filed objections to the taking of the six acres, which were denied by the courts. He said the case comes down to how much the property is worth.

Kapur said the ramps, as planned, could create major disruptions for church- and cemetery-goers both while construction goes on and after it is completed.

Also, anticipating a parking shortage, St. Joachim's decided to create space by knocking down a church building that was the parish's function hall - an expense it bore, Kapur said.

Another structure to be demolished and relocated is the cemetery's business office, which is on the acreage the state has acquired.

There's an emotional component the Transportation Department hasn't taken into consideration, Kapur said. When an elevated highway is constructed 40 feet above the cemetery, cemetery visitors will lose their quiet place to sit and contemplate.

Cemeteries are as much for the living as for the dead, he said.

"The attitude of the DOT is, they're dead, how can it be bothering them?" Kapur said.

Ardite, who said she had been considering moving, wonders how she or her neighbors can sell their houses while the earthshaking construction continues.

"Who wants to live here?" she said as another thunderous bang echoed.