Speaking at a strictly ceremonial groundbreaking in Bellmawr, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno acknowledged that "progress is sometimes painful," but Transportation Secretary James Simpson promised to keep all travel lanes open during the work.
"The normal congestion you experience in the summer, you can expect that," he said.
Motorists should see the first improvements within two years, Simpson said, when new ramps will do away with the lane crossing needed to get from one highway to the other. The area has an accident rate seven times the state average.
For the unfamiliar, I-76 and Route 42 are essentially the same highway, changing only their designations about where they meet I-295. The northern leg of I-295, however, is about a half-mile east of the southern leg, a situation Guadagno called "a weird factoid in New Jersey."
Joined by U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.) and local and county officials, Guadagno called the interruption of I-295 "the biggest hiccup" in the highway network between Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
"This will close the gap," she said, adding that the project would create jobs, spur economic development, and improve the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods, which have become escape routes when there is an accident at the junction.
Calling the project a "no-brainer" in terms of need, Simpson listed some of its features: 10 new bridges, one bridge widening, two temporary bridges, 22 retaining walls, 40 sign structures, and 15,000 feet of new or improved noise barriers.
The main element will be a curved viaduct that will cross over I-76/Route 42 to connect I-295. Work on the northbound section is slated to begin in 2016 and it is expected to open in 2019. The southbound section will open in 2021.
The project also will do away with the infamous Al-Jo curve, a tight near-circle that has claimed many tractor-trailers over the years and is named after a nightclub whose rooftop sign once loomed over the roadway.
The first phase of the project will include work along I-295 south of Essex Avenue in Bellmawr, as well as on ramps connecting northbound I-295 with westbound I-76, and eastbound I-76 with southbound I-295. The work will widen the Creek Road bridge over Route 42 and replace the Bell Road bridge over I-295. It is slated to be finished in fall 2015.
The project has required the acquisition of about 30 properties, split equally among commercial and residential, said Joseph Dee, a Department of Transportation spokesman. Three remain, including a tract with 12 rental dwellings.
"We intend to relocate the tenants to other units in the same neighborhood," Dee said in an e-mail.
Bellmawr Mayor Frank Filipek welcomed the start of work and said state, county, and borough officials need to coordinate their efforts "or this is not going to work."
"This is an opportunity - not only jobs for people in New Jersey that are really needed, but also for redevelopment and also for the congestion we've had to put up with for years," he said.
Contact Joseph Gambardello at 856-779-3844 or firstname.lastname@example.org.