Seventy years ago today, the New Jersey Turnpike (NJTP) was officially dedicated – despite not being completed yet. As the New York Times reported, “A major engineering feat, the new highway is an unimpeded route, without traffic lights, no cross roads, no left-hand turns and no grades over 3%.”
Today, the NJTP is a system of controlled-access highways that are maintained by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority (NJTA). The Turnpike’s southern end is at a complex interchange with U.S. Route 130 (US 130), New Jersey Route 49, Interstate 295 (I-295) and US 40 near the border of Pennsville and Carneys Point townships in Salem County, one mile east of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The Turnpike’s northern end is at another complex interchange with US 1/9, US 46, US 9W, New Jersey Route 4 and the Palisades Parkway just west of the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee.
The Turnpike is a key thoroughfare that provides access to numerous cities and towns in the state, as well as Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York. A toll road, the Turnpike provides a direct bypass southeast of Philadelphia for long-distance travelers between New York City and Washington, D.C. The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association cites the NJTP as the nation’s sixth-busiest toll road; it is also one of the most heavily traveled highways in the United States.
The first section of the NJTP to open linked the community of Deepwater with the city of Bordentown in southern New Jersey. It had actually been opened to traffic more than three weeks earlier, on November 5, 1951. During the November 30, 1951 dedication, a 40-mile segment that linked Bordentown with Woodbridge Township in northern New Jersey was opened.
During the dedication, a large procession of cars and buses toured the newly opened section, led by New Jersey Governor Albert E. Driscoll. During a speech, Driscoll stated, “Motorists can now see the beauty of the real New Jersey.”
The Turnpike was New Jersey’s first modern toll road and the third in the United States when it opened in 1951. (The first modern turnpike in the U.S. was the Pennsylvania Turnpike. You can read a three-part FreightWaves Classics article about it here, here and here. The nation’s second modern turnpike was the Maine Turnpike. You can read a FreightWaves Classics article about it here.)
Since the New Jersey Turnpike first opened it has grown by 30 miles – from 118 miles to 148 miles. The sections added to the original roadway include the Newark Bay-Hudson County Extension (1956), the Pearl Harbor Memorial Turnpike Extension (1956), the Western Spur (1970) and the I-95 Extension (1992). When the Turnpike opened, there were four lanes along its entire route. Now it is as wide as 14 lanes in certain areas.
The highway that is now the New Jersey Turnpike was first planned as two untolled freeways. The New Jersey State Highway Department proposed two state highways in 1938 that were never built. Route 100 would have gone from New Brunswick to the George Washington Bridge; in addition there would have been a spur to the Holland Tunnel. (This proposed spur is now the Newark Bay Extension of the Turnpike). Route 300 would have gone from the Delaware Memorial Bridge to New Brunswick.
However, even though the impacts of the Great Depression were easing somewhat by 1938, the State Highway Department did not have the funds to build the two freeways. Then World War II began, and most road-building was halted for its duration. Instead, a decade later in 1948, the NJTA was created to build the road. The planned Route 100 and Route 300 were built as a single toll road.
Kathleen Troast Pitney, the daughter of Paul L. Troast, the first chairman of the NJTA, wrote a letter to the editor to explain some of the workings of the first Authority. She wrote, “Governor Driscoll appointed three men to the turnpike authority in the late 1940s – Maxwell Lester, George Smith and Paul Troast, my father, as chairman. They had no enabling legislation and no funding. They were able to open more than two-thirds of the road in 11 months, completing the whole [project] in less than two years… When the commissioners broached the subject of landscaping the road… the governor told them he wanted a road to take the interstate traffic… off New Jersey’s existing roads. Since 85% of the traffic at that time was estimated to be from out of state, why spend additional funds on landscaping?”
Construction of the Turnpike
Building the Turnpike began in January 1950. At a cost of $225 million, the 118-mile construction project lasted 25 months. The first 44-mile section of the turnpike to open was from Exit 1 in Deepwater Township to Exit 5 in Westampton Township.
Although it was completed in just over two years, building the turnpike was not an easy task. A major issue was construction in the city of Elizabeth; either 450 homes or 32 businesses would be destroyed, depending on which route was chosen. Project engineers decided to go through the residential area, since it was the closest route to both Newark Airport and the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal seaport.
Another major construction issue was faced in Newark. A key decision needed to be made – to build either over or under the Pulaski Skyway. Construction above the skyway would cost much more, while construction under the Skyway would be less costly. However, if the Turnpike was built under the Skyway, its roadway would be very close to the Passaic River. This would make it difficult for ships to pass through. The decision came down primarily to money; the Turnpike was built to pass under the Pulaski Skyway.
In 2005, the NJTA lowered this part of the roadway to increase vertical clearance, as well as building full-width shoulders, which had been constrained originally by the location of the skyway supports. Engineers replaced the bearings and lowered the bridge by four feet without shutting down traffic. An 800-foot section of the bridge was lowered in 56 increments over a five-week period of work.
A third construction issue was in the New Jersey Meadowlands. Building a highway on the marsh’s silt and mud was difficult. In areas of shallow mud, crushed stone was dumped into the mud, and the roadway was built above the marsh’s water table. In the deeper mud, “caissons were sunk down to a firm stratum and filled with sand, then both the caissons and the surrounding areas were covered with blankets of sand. Gradually, the water was brought up, and drained into adjacent meadows.” The next step was to build the two major bridges over the Passaic and Hackensack rivers. Both “bridges were built to give motorists a clear view of the New York City skyline, but with high retaining walls to create the illusion of not being on a river crossing.” The Passaic River (Chaplain Washington) Bridge is 6,955-feet long, while the Hackensack River Bridge is 5,623-feet long.
First years of operation
The Turnpike’s first full year of operation was 1952. It carried nearly 18 million vehicles while generating $16.2 million in toll revenues. When the Turnpike was built it had four lanes for its entire length. Its original planners did not expect that the Turnpike’s number of lanes would need to be increased until 1975; however, due to the high traffic volume a construction project to widen 83 miles of the Turnpike began in 1955.