A LOOK BACK: Tuskegee Airman receives Purple Heart
Tuskegee Airman George Watson, of Lakewood, receives a Purple Heart during a ceremony at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. STAFF VIDEO BY THOMAS P. COSTELLO
Thomas P. Costello III
A request for federal funding for the project to connect the Fort Dix and Lakehurst sections of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst has gone before a new committee.
U.S. Reps. Andy Kim (D-03) and Chris Smith (R-04) recently submitted separate $8 million requests to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure for the Route 539 overpass project.
In his letter to the committee leadership, Smith called the project his “top transportation priority.”
“The CR 539 overpass project is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, helping the local community and the military address long-endured traffic hazards for civilian roadway travelers and critical military exercises at the only tri-service military base in the county,” Smith said.
The committee request, Kim said, is potentially a new path toward funding the critical infrastructure project.
“The trouble we’ve had before, there’s continued disagreement over who is going to pay for part of it,” Kim said. “It’s holding up a significant issue … I decided to try and come at this from a different direction.”
Route 539 currently divides the McGuire/Fort Dix and Lakehurst portions of the joint base in Ocean County. The proposed project, also known as the Route 539 Interconnector, would build an overpass along Route 539 to allow for military convoys to easily travel back and forth between both sections of the base, expanding the space where National Guard and Reserve forces can train.
“The proposed overpass is in direct support of the Army’s readiness mission to improve operational capability,” Col. Jon A Brierton, Fort Dix Commander and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Deputy Commander, said in a letter to Smith expressing support for the project.
The slow-moving military convoys currently must travel along Route 70 and Route 539, creating a safety hazard for civilian motorists — especially in the summer when the roadways become congested with shore traffic.
Route 539 has previously been listed by the New Jersey State Police as one the state’s deadliest roads, and lawmakers have pointed to collisions between military vehicles and civilian vehicles as to why the overpass is necessary.
“Using county roads to go between elements of the base can be really destructive and potentially dangerous,” Kim said.
In addition to making roadways safer, the overpass will also help secure the future of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which is the second largest employer in the state.
“The overpass would connect both sides of the base, open up training and new opportunities, and really maximize the base’s potential,” Kim said. “It would help protect against potential base closures in the future.”
However, while there is widespread agreement on the necessity of the overpass, its funding has presented a challenge. There has been disagreements over whether the U.S. Army or Air Force should pay for the overpass — both branches use the joint base — and other avenues pursued have come up short.
“I’m trying to use a different approach,” Kim said. “I’m trying to use every and all options at my disposal. There is no guarantee that we can get this across the finish line, but I’m going to give it my best shot.”
U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-01), state legislators Sens. Troy Singleton (D-7th) and Vin Gopal (D-11th), and officials in Burlington, Ocean and Monmouth counties have all supported the project.
Capital projects that go before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, if selected, would be funded through advance surface transportation authorization legislation later this spring as part of the Moving Forward Act from the 116th Congress.
In order for the project to be considered eligible for the funding, it should be included in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) or Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). If not included, there should be documentation verifying it can be added.
In an April 20 letter to Smith, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, the metropolitan planning organization for northern and central New Jersey, stated it would be able to add the project to the TIP in a reasonable timeframe if it receives federal funding.
In addition to the requested $8 million in federal funding, the project is also expected to receive financial support from the state and from the base’s adjoining counties.
In 2019, Singleton was a prime sponsor on a bill that would have made a supplemental appropriation of $2 million toward the project, however, it did not make it through the legislature.
Burlington and Ocean counties have said they plan on continuing to support the project in moving it forward as quickly as possible.
“The Burlington County Commissioners strongly support the overpass project because it will help enhance Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and the base’s many missions. The Board remains committed to working with our congressional delegation, state legislators and the other counties to see that it moves forward quickly,” Burlington County Spokesman David Levinsky said.
“Ocean County will honor its pledge and is willing to be the local sponsor for the federal aid project. We would be prepared to meet the local match with the additional support from the state and Burlington County,” Ocean County Spokeswoman Donna Flynn said.
There is no timeline for when projects will be selected, Kim said.
George Woolston is a reporter for the Burlington County Times, Courier-Post and Vineland Daily Journal. Help support local journalism with a subscription.