Since 2004, when preliminary study of the project began, three people have been killed along the three-mile stretch, where the usually fast-moving roadway arrives abruptly at the series of traffic lights, said James Simpson, the state transportation commissioner and New Jersey Turnpike Authority chairman.
"It's time to get this project done and get those traffic lights out of there," Simpson told a small crowd of officials, media, and others who gathered Monday morning along the side of the highway for the groundbreaking.
The Turnpike Authority, which operates the roadway, in December awarded the construction contract to Richard E. Pierson Construction Co. of Pilesgrove.
The traffic lights have been in place where the Parkway intersects with Shell Bay Avenue, Stone Harbor Boulevard, and Crest Haven Road since the toll road opened in 1954. The signals had been part of a bypass built in the 1940s around the Middle Township community of Cape May Court House, which is the seat of county's government and courts.
Work had been slated to begin 2011, but the plan hit a snag when issues with forest and wetlands mitigation arose within 26 acres of woodland and seven acres of freshwater and tidal wetlands. To compensate for the loss of those natural lands, the Turnpike Authority will spend about $5.3 million to preserve or enhance more than 50 acres of public area and wetlands away from the project location, officials said.
"Traffic lights have no place on a busy highway like the Garden State Parkway," said Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who also attended the ceremony. "By finally making this project a reality, we will save lives."
That sentiment was echoed by State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), a longtime proponent of removing the traffic lights. After the ceremony Monday, Van Drew said that over the years, he has talked with mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, and wives who have lost loved ones in accidents on the stretch of the Parkway.
"These lights have always been tremendous inconvenience for the residents and tourists of Cape May County. But more important than that is for us to remember how dangerous this stretch of road has been for so many people . . . the loved ones of so many people," Van Drew said.
He called Monday's groundbreaking the "fruition of over a half-century of promises made and promises not kept" by officials to fix the problem.
"When the Parkway was built, it was supposed end in Atlantic County, and finally, after a lot of arm twisting and lobbying, it was extended to Cape May County," Van Drew recalled. "But they ran out of money, so instead of making full interchanges, they left the traffic lights, always promising that someday they would correct this serious engineering flaw."
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at philly.com/downashore. Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.