WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congressman Josh Gottheimer has requested that no money be put into the coming federal budget or any subsequent budget to pay for any planning or construction of New Jersey DOT’s proposed rockfall mitigation project on Interstate 80 through the Delaware Water Gap.
The letter was sent in March to Rep. David E. Price, chairman, and Mario Diaz-Balart, ranking member of the subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies. The committee is part of the Appropriations Committee.
In a statement this week, Gottheimer said, “The appropriations process is currently underway in Congress to determine the budgets for federal departments and agencies for next year. This request is to make sure no federal funds are used by NJDOT to plan or construct the rockwall on I-80.”
The rockwall is a project proposed by the state DOT to mitigate what the department claims is the highest priority site in the state for the potential for rocks falling onto a highway.
However, local officials have been fighting against the project on at least two fronts — the department has not been forthcoming with information to local officials and the public, and the S-curve in that same area is more dangerous, as shown by the number of accidents, than any rocks falling.
The state looks at a federal program administered by the Federal Highway Administration to pay for mitigation projects in areas that are prone to falling rocks or landslides.
The first looks at the stretch of Interstate 80 — less than three-quarters of a mile — came about 15 years ago and a full study was done a decade ago. That study said the preferred mitigation project, a steel fence of up to 60 feet, cutting back the existing ledge, and a second concrete “pyramid” structure, would be needed.
The cost at that time was about $5 million to $7 million and a couple of years of reduced traffic flow. The latest project cost is estimated at $57 million or more and four to five years of traffic disruption.
Asked for a response, DOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said Thursday, “The I-80 Rockfall Project is in its earliest stages of development. Using the federal guidelines for assessing risk, this portion of rock face along I-80 is New Jersey’s highest ranked risk for rockfall.
“While we respect Congressman Gottheimer’s concern for the aesthetics of this region of New Jersey, the New Jersey Department of Transportation would appreciate the opportunity for the project process to continue,” she said.
The commissioner also noted that if there is a rockfall incident, “it is the liability of the State of New Jersey. Thus, given the risk rating, it is imperative that the process be permitted to continue and the funding be available for it.”
The opposition has received the backing of other political figures from both sides of the river at the state and federal level.
Rep. Matt Cartwright, whose Pennsylvania district includes northern Monroe County and Pike County, is a member of the Appropriations Committee and has expressed support for those seeking more information.
In addition to the actions in Congress, there is also growing pressure on the Federal Highway Administration to force the state DOT to commission a full Environmental Impact Study, which would take a deep look into environmental and social issues around the project.
“We don't know exactly what will be included in the final appropriations bill, but I'm making sure to raise these concerns from local officials and residents with our federal partners," Gottheimer said. ”We are continuing to work on this at a local and state level to make sure we find a fiscally-responsible solution that ensures the safety of our drivers, while not impacting the local economy and pristine surroundings."