MAURICE RIVER TOWNSHIP - Despite a projected $1.23 billion annually going into New Jersey's coffers to fund road projects from the recent 23-cent-a-gallon gas tax hike, drivers in the southern portion of the state could still be on the road to nowhere when it comes to the completion of fabled Route 55.

But officials are studying a rising number of fatalities and other motor vehicle accidents near the current end of Route 55 here — where a 20-mile extension of the roadway was to have been constructed in the 1960s as part of the "Cape May Expressway" but was never finished — to determine how to make the heavily traveled Shore-traffic corridor safer.

What to do about the often-congested area during the summer season has been a longtime debate between state and local officials trying to solve traffic woes and opponents who contend that the region in Cape May County is far too environmentally fragile to build a new, massive four-lane highway.

Three years ago, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak proposed legislation to allocate Transportation Trust Fund money to create a plan to build the Route 55 extension. But so far, the plan hasn't moved out of the committee stage in the state legislature.

"It's been a heavy lift, but we keep trying," Van Drew said Friday. "I think it's important for us to at least determine a route and a design concept for this so we can see if it is a viable solution."

Officials say the gas-tax funding has invigorated interest in getting the road finished. Estimates on the cost of the 20-mile extension are $1 billion.

"It would be a massive undertaking to get this extension built," admits Cape May County Freeholder-Director Gerald R. Thornton, who mounted a recent successful push to get just under $100,000 in funding from the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization so the county could study motor vehicle flow and possible solutions for the apparent traffic-safety issues in the area.

"The biggest issue is safety, and we really need to come up with solutions to handle it," Thornton said.

Thornton said county officials are "astounded" by accident statistics between 2003 and 2015 that show there were 23 fatalities and 2,817 accidents along a 23-mile stretch of the heavily traveled Route 47 Shore route between here and the intersection of the Garden State Parkway in Rio Grande.

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said extending Route 55 by 20 miles would cut through the Pinelands National Reserve, significant wetlands, and internationally recognized bird habitat, and would increase traffic and pollution in one of the most environmentally sensitive regions in the state.

"We've been fighting this for years ... and we keep being told that it will never happen. That it's too big and too costly a project," said Tittel. "But we've been told that about other projects and when the political tide turned, all of a sudden they were happening. We continue to fight this because it will not only open up the area for more sprawl and overdevelopment, but it is a huge waste of taxpayer money."

Tittel said traffic issues are exacerbated by an antiquated Saturday-to-Saturday rental schedule in Shore towns such as Ocean City, Wildwood, and Cape May. Traffic flow, he says, could be improved by having some of the rentals alter so-called "changeover" days to include Fridays and Sundays.

"I think it should be a matter of looking at the resources already in place and finding solutions that don't cost billions of dollars and endanger our open space," Tittel said.

Construction of the existing 40.5-mile freeway - which runs between an interchange with Route 42 in Gloucester County and terminates at Route 47 near Port Elizabeth in Cumberland County — occurred in phases that spanned from the mid 1960s through the late 1980s.

But when the Cape May Expressway was first proposed in the late 1950s after the completion of the Walt Whitman Bridge, it included a plan for an additional 20 miles of the roadway south of Port Elizabeth and Mauricetown that would have linked it with the Garden State Parkway in Middle Township somewhere near Cape May Court House.

Development of that roadway was to have occurred simultaneously with the construction of the Atlantic City Expressway.

And while the development of the Atlantic City Expressway successfully sliced through old-growth hardwood forests, valuable farmland, and environmentally sensitive coastal uplands and wetlands in its east-west march across the southern part of New Jersey's midsection in the 1960s, plans for the Cape May Expressway were ultimately stymied by environmental and cultural concerns in Cape May County. Authorities at the time said there were too many wetlands in the proposed path of the route. Later studies bolstered that finding and additionally contended that there were endangered species present along the route. The studies also said Native American and other historic sites could also pose an issue for the roadway's construction.

Plans for the Cape May Expressway were scrapped altogether and by the mid-1960s control of the development of the highway was handed back to the state Department of Transportation from the New Jersey Expressway Authority, which had been formed to handle the construction of both express Shore routes.

So when the first phase of Route 55 opened to traffic in 1969, it went virtually nowhere, connecting only one part of the Cumberland County town of Millville with another section of Millville along a two-mile stretch. By the late 1970s, the road extended about 10 miles farther north to Route 40 at Malaga, a section of Franklin Township in Gloucester County, creating a kind of bypass through the center of Vineland along Delsea Drive, Route 47, which had long been a popular southern Shore route.

An additional ten miles, heading south of Millville, was subsequently added to the freeway, which linked drivers back to Route 47 and Route 347, in a kind of bypass route that moves drivers through rural Cape May County into the Wildwood area.

It wasn't until 1989, that the portion of Route 55 extending north from the Malaga/Route 40 exit to Route 42 opened. The stretch includes exits for Glassboro and Rowan University, Washington Township, and Deptford and is credited with creating increased residential and commercial development in Gloucester County.

But Route 55 had such limited purpose for so long, that it was dubbed the Road to Nowhere by drivers.

@JacquelineUrgo