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March 15, 2008

Bridge time line warrants probe

Asbury Park Press

Despite a rash of lawsuits, the state Department of Transportation is moving full speed ahead on the Route 36 Sea Bright-Highlands bridge project. Plans to replace the drawbridge with a fixed span almost twice its height has drawn the justifiable ire of residents in both boroughs.

Because of what Stuart Lieberman, attorney for the opposition group Citizens for Rational Coastal Development, charitably called "a sharp discrepancy" in the bridge work time line, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and state Sen. Sean Kean, R-Monmouth, should take the lead in demanding an investigation by the state Attorney General's office. And U.S. District Court Judge Joel Pisano should expedite Lieberman's request to elicit further information from the DOT and halt all construction and related activities until the matter is resolved.

DOT officials have been caught time and again making statements relating to the project that strain credulity. The agency's credibility won't be helped by its rush to clear land by the bridge just weeks after it claimed in court that work would not begin for at least a year.

The citizens group sought an injunction in federal court barring work on the bridge until pending legal matters had been resolved. At the Feb. 4 hearing, Pisano, sitting in Trenton, denied the request, based in part on the DOT's representation the bridge would not be touched until May 19, 2009. The contractors started clearing the approach to the span Feb. 11. Lieberman wrote to Pisano citing the "significant and peculiar" fact that, just two weeks after the DOT cited the 2009 date, it claimed there was a "misunderstanding" and work on the approach would start in the near future.

The DOT responded by blaming the contractor for proceeding with a "different and extremely aggressive construction schedule" — one the DOT approved. But it has failed to say exactly when. Lieberman contends the DOT should have told the court about the change if it was made before the Feb. 4 hearing or before Feb. 21, when the judge filed his written opinion.

Lieberman noted that staging work on a project of such magnitude likely would not have been "devised within the last 30 days" and called it "almost inconceivable" the DOT was unable to correctly answer the question raised by the court: When will the historic bridge be affected by construction activity? Because the time line was a major factor in Pisano's decision, Lieberman said he will seek probes by the U.S. and state attorneys general if the DOT fails to divulge who knew about the schedule change and when they knew it.

The project has taken on the foul odor of similar government construction projects, railroaded through the system with utter disregard for the wishes, quality of life or property values of affected taxpayers. Further work on the bridge should be halted until questions relating to the time line are answered and the pending litigation has run its course.