Safe passage for all creatures on the A.C. Expressway

Fawns make their way under Route 80 in North Jersey. Cameras also have recently shown endangered bobcats, a bear cub, and opossums using the tunnels.
Fawns make their way under Route 80 in North Jersey. Cameras also have recently shown endangered bobcats, a bear cub, and opossums using the tunnels. (NJDEP)
Posted: August 05, 2013

During the recent widening of a major South Jersey shore route, small endangered critters in the area faced a new danger. They would have to dodge yet another lane of rumbling trucks, buses, and cars, seemingly charging at the wildlife, in the middle of a pristine wildlife preserve.

But a novel program, often found out West, is helping the animals safely cross the Atlantic City Expressway, a corridor used by roughly 53 million travelers a year.

Fences are guiding them away from the highway and into four culverts beneath it.

To gauge the program's success, the state Department of Environmental Protection plans to install motion-triggered cameras next month to see if endangered tree frogs, rare northern pine snakes, and the more common foxes, raccoons, and opossums are using the passageways located near the Frank S. Farley Rest Stop in Hammonton.

Though these are a first in South Jersey, the use of animal crossings has become a trend, nationwide, when major highways are built or expanded. "There is state land on both sides of the Atlantic City Expressway," said Brian Zarate, a DEP zoologist, referring to the state Makepeace Lake Wildlife Management Area, a 10,000-acre untouched section of the Pinelands, a federally designated area with numerous endangered and rare species.

Animal crossings "in the form of a tunnel under a roadway or an overpass above it" are being used to eliminate roadkill and to allow animals to continue to roam freely throughout their habitats, even when severed by a road, Zarate said.

But when the idea was floated in 2009, during the approval process, South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA) officials were surprised. While seeking a permit to add one lane of highway to the five others on a 24-mile stretch, the DEP told them they would have to create crossings and install 10 miles of wire-and-mesh fencing along the highway to keep the animals off.

"Honestly? Do we have to?" was the immediate reaction of Samuel L. Donelson, acting executive director of the SJTA. "This was a first for us."

Motorists also began calling after the first fences went up in 2011. "There was a lot of head-scratching. People wondered, 'Why would you mess up a picturesque drive on the expressway with galvanized steel fencing?' " Donelson recalled. The expressway is mostly surrounded by woods and blueberry farms and has a grassy median strip with purple wildflowers.

The fence actually runs along only 2.5 miles of the highway, in Hammonton, but it lines both sides of the eastbound lanes and both sides of the westbound lanes.

Callers also mistakenly believed the four-foot-high fencing was installed to keep deer off the highway, Donelson said. But unlike in Pennsylvania, deer seldom venture onto this roadway, he said.

The fencing, he said, is designed only to keep small critters that inhabit the Makepeace preserve safe.

The SJTA also was instructed to place gabion baskets - large rocks wrapped in chain-link wire - along the sides of four existing culverts below the highway. The box-shaped culverts are constantly filled with brackish water, and the baskets create shelves or elevated pathways above its surface to accommodate small animals that do not swim.

The cost of the fences and gabion baskets to toll-payers? About $496,000 of the overall $57.9 million road project.

Donelson joked that SJTA officials were trying to figure out "how do we toll the critters for getting across the road?" But he also recognizes that the 54-mile expressway cuts through an environmentally sensitive region and that the DEP must protect endangered species from "getting squished."

He said the SJTA was trying to contain the project's cost but understands that "regulatory agencies have their work to do."

The animal crossings are not new to the state, but are just coming into vogue. Decades ago, an overpass covered with earth and vegetation was built above a highway that sliced through the Watchung Reservation, in Union County, so that white-tailed deer wouldn't have to share their territory with tractor-trailers.

But many years passed before other animal crossings were created in the state. Cameras have recently captured endangered bobcats, a bear cub, and opossums happily using tunnels under Route 80 in North Jersey.

There are also approved plans to build special tunnels for threatened snakes and wood turtles beneath roads in Waretown, Ocean County, and Bedminster, Somerset County.

DEP officials say the crossings also improve highway safety, preventing accidents caused when motorists hit an animal or swerve to avoid a crash.

Gretchen Fowles, a DEP biologist, said the goal was to "target areas that are travel corridors for wildlife" - not put fences up and create crossings everywhere.

When sensitive animal habitats are divided by highways and urban developments, the critters' mobility is reduced, and that may hinder mating habits and genetic diversity, she said. The agency aims to identify habitats, like the one near the expressway, that need to be reconnected, she said.

In Pennsylvania, the Department of Transportation created animal crossings in recent years by elevating roadways above wildlife areas.

A $38.7 million bypass built around the town of Marshalls Creek, near the Poconos, travels above "virgin land" occupied by black bears, deer, bobcats, porcupines, and other animals, officials said. When a stretch of I-99 was built near State College, in 2009, at a cost of $2.2 million, the same strategy was used.

"The emphasis on wildlife crossings has increased over the last 10 years because we're more cognizant of the need for wildlife to have corridors for movement and also for the safety of the motorists," said Gary Fawver, chief of PennDot's environmental policy.

State and federal laws come into play when a "wildlife corridor" has been identified, he said.

PennDot has also positioned cameras at the animal crossings and discovered the animals like the pathways.

"The evidence shows that within a relatively short time, the animals were utilizing them," Fawver said. "There was little hesitancy."


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.inquirer.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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