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5/10/2016 Senator calls for Rt. 35 investigation, Russ Zimmer, Asbury Park Press

A state senator is calling for a federal investigation after an Asbury Park Press report revealed that the restoration of Route 35 has become one of the most expensive road projects in New Jersey history.

The rebuilding project’s final bill has ballooned to an estimated $341 million, or $27.3 million per mile for the highway that runs from Seaside Heights to Bay Head on Ocean County’s northern barrier peninsula, according to an investigation by the Asbury Park Press.

That’s about 31 times more than a typical mile of roadway costs in New Jersey, using the state’s own calculations.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Elizabeth, has asked the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress to dig into what happened on the 12.5-mile project.

“The Route 35 reconstruction project is the poster child for what’s wrong with the state and federal government’s Sandy relief effort,” Lesniak said in a statement on Monday.  “It is over budget, a year behind schedule, and now we learn that New Jersey taxpayers are going to have to foot a $100 million bill. This is a boondoggle that is completely unacceptable.”

The state DOT should know and take action before a project’s spending spirals out of control, said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, deputy speaker and chair of the transportation committee. He said the Press’ report on Route 35 was the first he’d heard of problems with the project.

“You don’t spend 30 percent more on a project without first knowing that it was 2 percent over and then 5 percent over.,” Wisniewski told the Press on Monday. “At those smaller amounts there should be a warning to the DOT that something is wrong.”

Much of the overruns can be traced to state and federal officials’ desire to move quickly, condensing the timeline for the massive project into two years. However, the plan backfired and not only did the project ring up an extra $76 million in costs but the completion date was pushed back a year.

Another $23 million in non-construction overruns have not been explained by the NJDOT.The project is on pace to be 29 percent over budget, including nearly $25 million paid to contractors to make up for 592 days worth of design- and planning-related delays. One contractor was paid $18.3 million just to wait around for months while miles of natural gas pipes were replaced.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, pointed to the Route 35 story on Twitter and cited it as a reason not to support raising the gas tax.
And it’s not just elected officials, readers took to social media to voice their frustration.

The government’s willingness to accept extra costs for this project leads to questions about its priorities in the Sandy reconstruction.

Fewer than 7,000 people live on this stretch of Route 35 and many of them are quite affluent. The standard household in Mantoloking, for example, earns more than double the typical family in New Jersey, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Still, the Christie Administration and the Federal Highway Administration set out an aggressive timeline for Route 35 and accepted the budget-busting risks that come with fast-tracking a project of this scale. Their hope was to completely restore the critical commercial thoroughfare and evacuation route before the 2015 summer, which didn’t happen.

Meanwhile, thousands of low- and middle-income New Jerseyans have had to fight tooth and nail to persuade the federal and state governments to release disaster aid so they could rebuild their home.

Although the flagship home rebuilding program has now completed 3,174 homes as of Monday, construction was slow to begin because of bureaucratic red tape holding back the aid money.

If the government is going to go over budget on Sandy projects,  those dollars “should have gone to homeowners who are still struggling to put together sufficient funding to get home more than three years later, not to cover our poor planning and execution,” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, which has lobbied for Sandy survivors.

Russ Zimmer: 732-557-5748, [email protected]

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