This 2003 photo shows the northbound NJ 55 Freeway at EXIT 50 (US 322 / Mullica Hill Road) in Glassboro. Beginning at this exit, the wide median was reserved for an expansion of the PATCO mass transit line from Camden to Glassboro. (Photo by Douglas Kerr, www.gribblenation.com.)
EXPRESSWAY FROM PHILADELPHIA TO CAPE MAY: In the mid-1950's, the New Jersey State Highway Department proposed two expressway connections from the Walt Whitman Bridge to shore points in southern New Jersey. The first connection, between the bridge and Atlantic City, was constructed as the NJ 42 Freeway and the Atlantic City Expressway. The second connection, between the bridge and Cape May County, eventually became known as the NJ 55 Freeway.
Soon after its inception, the NJ 55 Freeway was planned as a toll road: the "Cape May Expressway." On January 16, 1962, Governor Robert Meyner signed the New Jersey Expressway Authority Act into law. The Expressway Authority was authorized to issue revenue bonds to construct, maintain and operate both the Atlantic City Expressway and the Cape May Expressway.
When construction began in 1965, the Expressway Authority ceded control over the Cape May Expressway (NJ 55 Freeway) to the New Jersey State Highway Department, which became the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) soon thereafter. In its 1967 report New Jersey Highway Facts, the NJDOT described the purpose of the NJ 55 Freeway as follows:
The Route 55 Freeway will extend from US 9 in the vicinity of Cape May Court House, Cape May County to I-295 at Westville, Gloucester County. The route of this freeway was legislated in 1960.
The north-south expressway link between Philadelphia and the southern tip of New Jersey, which was to supplement the congested NJ 47, was also intended to serve the Vineland-Millville area. The NJDOT estimated that the 60-mile-long NJ 55 Freeway would be completed by 1975, at a cost of $90 million.
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION: Traversing flat-to-gently rolling land, the NJ 55 Freeway was constructed within a 300-foot-wide right-of-way. The expressway, which has four lanes (two lanes in each direction) along its entire length, was constructed to contemporary highway standards. It has 12-foot-wide lanes, 12-foot-wide shoulders, a variable landscaped median separating the two carriageways, and a 70 MPH design speed. More than 600 acres, one-tenth of which was through wetlands, were acquired for the expressway, and 66 homes, one business and three farms were displaced.
Around 1970, the final legislated route of the NJ 55 Freeway was changed to provide easier access to NJ 42, I-76 and I-295. The northern terminus of the expressway was moved from I-295 in Westville (about one mile west of the I-76 / NJ 42 interchange) to the NJ 42 Freeway in Woodbury. Furthermore, for a short section in the Vineland-Millville area, the NJ 55 Freeway was to be dually signed with the proposed NJ 60 Freeway. (The east-west NJ 60 Freeway across southern New Jersey was never constructed.)
From south to north, construction of the NJ 55 Freeway progressed as follows:
EXIT 20 (NJ 47) in Port Elizabeth to EXIT 27 (NJ 47) in South Vineland: completed in 1969
EXIT 27 to EXIT 32 (NJ 56) in Vineland: completed in 1972
EXIT 32 to EXIT 39 (US 40) in Malaga: completed in 1973
EXIT 39 to EXIT 53 (Gloucester CR 553) in Sewell: completed in 1989
EXIT 53 to NJ 42 Freeway junction in Deptford: completed in 1986
THE ROUTE 55 FREEWAY TODAY: Combined with the NJ 42 Freeway, the 40-mile-long NJ 55 Freeway provides an important commuter link between bedroom communities in southern New Jersey and the Philadelphia-Camden metropolitan area. Traffic volumes range from 15,000 vehicles per day (AADT) in the Vineland-Millville area to 50,000 vehicles per day near the NJ 42 Freeway. The speed limit along the entire length of the NJ 55 Freeway is 65 MPH, except in the immediate area of the NJ 42 Freeway interchange.
More on the NJ 55 Freeway from phillyroads.com contributor Chris Blaney as follows:
As far as exit and milepost signs go, Route 55 is the ugly stepsister of New Jersey freeways. Beginning at milepost 20 in Cape Elizabeth (allowing for the unbuilt southern extension to Cape May), both the exit and milepost signs are very small compared to those on other freeways. Between milepost 27 and milepost 39, the signs are the larger freeway-standard, but have become illegible since they were installed in the early 1970's. Signing improves along the northern section of the freeway constructed in the late 1980's.
The state plans the following improvements along the NJ 55 Freeway:
At EXIT 24 (NJ 49) in Millville, the NJDOT plans to rebuild interchange ramps and extend acceleration-deceleration lanes. The $7.3 million project is scheduled for completion in 2008.
The NJDOT plans to mill and resurface the NJ 55 Freeway from EXIT 32 (NJ 56) in Vineland north to EXIT 39 (US 40) in Malaga, and from EXIT 50 (US 322) in Glassboro north to the NJ 42 Freeway interchange in Deptford. The $17 million project is scheduled for completion in 2007.
Further south, the NJDOT is considering variable message signs and other traffic demand measures to alleviate seasonal congestion along the NJ 55 Freeway corridor. These actions may be implemented as an alternative to constructing the remainder of the expressway south of Port Elizabeth, and through environmentally sensitive Cape May County.
MASS TRANSIT ALONG ROUTE 55: In 1975, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) unveiled plans for a new line of the PATCO high-speed rail system south from the Camden-Philadelphia area. The new PATCO line, which was to run within the 137-foot-wide median of the NJ 55 Freeway, was to terminate in Glassboro at EXIT 50 (US 322). This rail line was never constructed.
In 2003, the DRPA began public outreach on proposed mass transit improvements along the NJ 55 corridor. The long-proposed PATCO Glassboro line is a possible alternative, but any construction likely would not begin until after 2010.
This 2003 photo shows the northbound NJ 55 Freeway at EXIT 39 (US 40 / Harding Highway) in Franklin Township. (Photo by Douglas Kerr, www.gribblenation.com.)
"Anyone who has traveled in the area in the summer is aware that Route 47 is not an adequate alternative to a complete Route 55." - Sen. James Cafiero (R-Cape May)
THE MISSING LINK TO CAPE MAY: Looking at a map of the NJ 55 Freeway, one notices that the route ends some 20 miles short of its original terminus of Cape May Court House. One also notices that separating the expressway from its original terminus are several environmentally sensitive areas, particularly the Dennis Creek Wildlife Management Area.
In its 1972 report Master Plan for Transportation, the NJDOT described the route of the remaining section of freeway as follows:
The construction of the NJ 55 Freeway is necessary as a parallel route to NJ 47, a land service road having poor capacity and horizontal alignment. The completion of this freeway in its entirety from the Garden State Parkway in Middle Township north to the NJ 42 Freeway in Deptford Township will do much to accelerate the residential, commercial and industrial development of Gloucester, Cumberland and Cape May counties, as well as provide direct access to the Cape May peninsula.
Three years later, the NJDOT began environmental studies of the 20-mile-long "missing link" between Port Elizabeth and Cape May Court House. The NJDOT, acknowledging that the highway would have potentially deleterious effects on sensitive Pine Barrens and wetlands areas, admitted that years of delays lay ahead before construction crews moved forward.
The 1975 NJDOT report expected that the NJ 55 Freeway, which was then estimated to cost $155 million, would be completed by 1995. However, because of the environmental sensitivity of the area, and the growing political sentiment against new highways in such areas, the NJDOT decided not to pursue the proposed route south of Port Elizabeth.
NEW LIFE FOR THE EXTENSION? Hope have been revived recently for extending the NJ 55 Freeway southeast through Cape May County to the Garden State Parkway. In early 2001, Governor Donald DiFrancesco, who sponsored previous legislation for finishing the freeway as state senator, joined with other state legislators, local mayors and the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce is passing a resolution to complete the link.
Supporters look for the $500 million NJ 55 Freeway extension to boost tourism and economic development in the county. Opponents fear increased development and the loss of woodlands, as addressed in the following comments by New Jersey Sierra Club executive director Jeff Tittel:
If Route 55 goes through, Cape May will go the way of Monmouth and Ocean counties. We'll see Toms River in Cape May, and that's what the stakes are. If New Jersey wants areas that are truly wild, that is one of the last ones left.
Nicholas Asselta (R-Cumberland) and Jack Gibson (R-Cape May), two state legislators who have supported the highway, said that the NJDOT could save money by moving the proposed terminus of the NJ 55 Freeway from Cape May Court House eight miles north to Sea Isle City. The plan has the support of the inland borough of Woodbine, which would be in the path of the new road. However, critics say the revised plan crosses five miles of wetlands and cuts a swath through Belleplain State Forest.
The NJDOT, which as late as 1990 called the NJ 55 Freeway extension "not buildable," revealed that it would revisit the NJ 55 Freeway proposal (possibly for development as a toll road) in its 2002-2003 "study and development" plan as follows:
Development of plans for the completion of Route 55 between its present terminus at Port Elizabeth in Cumberland County to a connection with the Garden State Parkway in the vicinity of EXIT 13 in Cape May County. The project is to be developed for private financing, construction and operation.
A public hearing was held in 2003 to determine the feasibility of extending the NJ 55 Freeway. The success of the hearing in favor of completing Route 55 led to the introduction of Assembly Bill A-2619 and Senate Bill S-1727, both of which would fund the engineering and environmental impact studies necessary to complete the freeway. Plans to build the extension, which is estimated to cost $500 million, have been kept active by local representatives in the State Assembly.
This 2003 photo shows the southern terminus of the NJ 55 Freeway as it transitions from NJ 47 (Delsea Drive) in Maurice River Township. Over the 35 years, there have been various aborted proposals to extend the freeway south through Cape May County. (Photo by Douglas Kerr, www.gribblenation.com.)
FINISH THE NJ 55 FREEWAY TO THE SHORE: The NJ 55 Freeway should be completed southeast to the Garden State Parkway. The right-of-way acquisition should be the 300-foot-wide standard used for a four-lane rural Interstate highway, with wider rights-of-way used through ecologically sensitive areas. According to "Stay Alive with 55," a pro-highway group based in Cape May County, the proposed extension would reduce accidents, ease congestion, reduce pollution and facilitate emergency evacuations.
Jeff Taylor, South Jersey contributor to phillyroads.com, provided the following insight on extending the NJ 55 Freeway:
The unfortunate reality is that as much as some environmental groups do not want NJ 55 expanded and would rather add a lane to NJ 47, the same people will then turn around and complain that an additional lane on NJ 47 will add to the traffic congestion and sprawl. There are also some very sensitive areas that NJ 47 goes through, such as small towns, wetlands and woodlands. If anyone is familiar with the Millstone Bypass that the NJDOT is having trouble building to relieve US 1 of congestion, NJ 47 is extremely similar, with the main difference being that NJ 47 is a two-lane roadway (one lane in each direction).
To widen the existing NJ 47 would be just as hard as extending the NJ 55 Freeway. The NJDOT said that an extension of NJ 55 is not feasible, but at the same time have really dragged their feet in doing anything with NJ 47. While The Star-Ledger quoted that the NJDOT has been looking at NJ 47 for two years, significant research into the NJ 47 corridor has been going on the past decade. So far, the NJDOT has managed to reduce speed limits along NJ 47 and add a traffic light at the existing terminus of the NJ 55 Freeway in Port Elizabeth. Neither remedy has improved the flow of traffic. Other than adding a few signs for alternate routes to the shore towns, nothing positive has been done, and nothing is really planned.
While the NJDOT claims that it would take 30 years in studies alone (which is very doubtful) to build the NJ 55 Freeway extension, don't expect anything for at least five to ten years along NJ 47, other than the periodic "we have to do something about this traffic" stories that we will continue to read about for years to come.
In the map on the left, phillyroads.com contributor Scott Colbert illustrates a new "Ocean View interchange" between the NJ 55 Freeway and the Garden State Parkway. The interchange for NJ 55 would become the new EXIT 19 on the Garden State Parkway, located just south of the existing Cape May toll plaza.
SOURCES: "Bridge Is Opened at Philadelphia" by William D. Weart, The New York Times (5/16/1957); "Atlantic City Expressway: Engineering Report," New Jersey Expressway Authority (1962); New Jersey Highway Facts, New Jersey Department of Transportation (1967); 1985 Regional Transportation Plan, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (1969); Master Plan for Transportation, New Jersey Department of Transportation (1972); Mass Transportation Development Program, Delaware River Port Authority and Urban Mass Transportation Administration (1975); "New Jersey Route 55: Administrative Action Final Environmental Impact Statement and Section 4(f) Statement," Federal Highway Administration and New Jersey Department of Transportation (1975); "Route 55 Extension Plan Due" by Carlos M. Sardella, The New York Times (8/16/1987); "Proposal To Complete Route 55 Up for Vote" by Joseph P. Smith, The Courier-Post (2/07/2000); "Pinelands Highway Raises the Devil" by Steve Chambers, The Star-Ledger (3/12/2001); "DiFrancesco Backs Plan To Expand 65 MPH Speed Limit," The Associated Press (8/15/2001); "Route 55 Extension to the Shore Is Critical for NJ," The Daily Journal (12/13/2005); Cape May Chamber of Commerce; Chris Blaney; Phil Case; Scott Colbert; Frank Curcio; Rich Dean; Raymond C. Martin; Christopher G. Mason; Dan Moraseski; Brian Polidoro; Jeff Taylor; William F. Yurasko.
NJ 55 shield by Ralph Herman. Lightpost by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.