Retaining wall collapse in South Jersey could further delay a $900 million fix of a regional traffic nightmare
“We don’t want the orange barrel to be the state flower.”
For years, the mash-up of concrete spaghetti where Interstates 295 and 76 and Route 42 meet in Camden County has been the region’s great idler of traffic.
Now, the late-March collapse of a retaining wall may push back the expected 2028 completion of the $900 million project to untangle the mess.
“Realistically, we have to accept there’s going to be some lost time,” Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the New Jersey transportation commissioner, said last week during a Zoom town-hall meeting with elected leaders and hundreds of area residents who have borne the burden of seemingly endless construction.
She said the department would do its best to limit the setback: “We don’t want the orange barrel to be the state flower.”
In a little over six weeks, the Jersey Shore season begins. The interchange has long been a headache for travelers heading east on summer weekends from Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs, as well as New Jersey drivers coming from points north.
Early in the morning of March 25, workers discovered the wall sagging, with some of its tiles bulging out. The soil anchoring the structure was pushed up in places as if it had been tilled.
The elevated roadway supported by the wall, in Bellmawr, was not open to traffic, and no one was injured. Eventually it will form the core of southbound I-295, carrying seven lanes toward Delaware. Now, drivers have to negotiate the death-defying Al-Jo’s curve, with its brutal merge onto Route 42, until that highway links to the southbound interstate.
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The New Jersey Department of Transportation closed one of the two northbound lanes of I-295 that run through a tunnel underneath the ramp during construction. Residents say the squeeze has clogged traffic there during morning rush hours.
Officials don’t yet know what precisely caused the problem, how they will repair it, how long it might extend the project’s timeline, or what it will cost to fix. Before that happened, the Direct Connection was already several years behind schedule. Construction began in summer 2013 and originally was supposed to be done this year.
NJDOT officials said they hope to have more answers by the end of the month. The department has engaged an independent “forensic engineer” to determine what went wrong, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
“The failure is where the soil just fell out that was bracing that wall up for us,” she said. “And it just let go.” She disclosed that crews noticed cracks on the surface of the elevated roadway the day before the collapse, and a few retaining wall tiles were loosened two years ago, apparently by water infiltration.
Gutierrez-Scaccetti said the finished parts of the connection project are not in similar danger because they have had time to “settle,” just as a newly built house does.
Workers are tearing down the wall with excavators, searching for the point where the failure occurred, and laying down riprap, crushed rock, to secure the soil holding up the wall.
If the work extends into 2028, South Jersey’s Direct Connection will have lasted about as long as Boston’s Big Dig, the central artery project that involved, among other things, digging two long tunnels to carry interstates beneath downtown and under the harbor. Construction there lasted from 1991 to 2006.
“Imagine if you had a child enter the Bellmawr Park Elementary kindergarten class on the first day of construction. By the time it concludes, they’d be able to have earned an associate’s degree, at least,” said Assemblyman William F. Moen Jr. (D., Camden), a transportation committee member who arranged the meeting and served as the host.
Jeff Tittle, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, believes much of the project’s money has been wasted “building a bigger spaghetti bowl” than using some of it to improve transit in the region, by building bus-only lanes into the project, electrifying NJ Transit buses, and advancing the proposed $1.6 billion Camden-Glassboro Line light-rail project.
The Direct Connection and its ancillary $200 million “missing moves” construction to improve local links to Route 42 have loomed large in Bellmawr. “People have had to take it into account when dropping kids off at Little League games, going to church, or to the VFW hall that’s nearby — all the normal things of daily life,” Moen said.
Bellmawr Mayor Chuck Sauter said he appreciated the work of the area’s state legislators in setting up the meeting. “The residents of Bellmawr have been dealing with this disruption for far too long,” he said. “It’s time to focus on a completion date.”
Mark Matthews, who reports on South Jersey road projects, development, and redevelopment on his news website, 42Freeway.com, has been all over the collapse story, using drone footage to show the scene and posting a video analysis.
Over the years, Matthews has often criticized NJDOT for what he says is the agency’s failure to keep area residents informed. He said the town hall meeting “established the foundation for openness,” adding he expects “solid answers” in the next several weeks.
Near the end of the Zoom meeting, Gutierrez-Scaccetti committed to regular briefings with local elected leaders on the investigation into the collapse, progress on repairs, and changes to the overall project timetable. She also pledged to regularly update the Direct Connection page on the department’s website.
“Now that we’ve done this and we bonded over a 6 o’clock-in-the-evening town-hall meeting, you’re stuck with me,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said to Moen, the lawmaker. “We’re going to keep making sure that you are fully informed.”