TOMS RIVER – The New Jersey Department of Transportation said that the intersection of Routes 166 and 37 will be completed in spring, which came as news to the businesses impacted by the construction.
“The $11.7 million state-funded project is expected to be completed in early spring, before Memorial Day, when the weather is warmer,” said Stephen Schapiro, Director of Communications for the DOT. “There is a small section of the Old Freehold Road/Route 166 intersection that needs to be constructed and then paving Route 166 from Old Freehold Road to Route 37. Most of the work will be done overnight. Final construction costs won’t be known until after the project is completed and closed out.”
He said part of the delay was when projects were shut down over the Transportation Trust Fund debate in Trenton. Another delay was for the gas company to finish their work. According to the state, the work began in March of 2016.
“The Department understands the frustration of any community whenever a construction project temporarily causes changes in traffic patterns,” he said.
Local business owners are happy that the project – and their frustration – seems to be finally coming to an end. Several of them have noted how they’ve been hit hard by the construction.
“It killed us. It literally killed us,” said Seyithan Tektas from Yesterdays and Todays Consignment. “The town blames the state, the state blames the contractors but the contractors get paid no matter what.”
The store’s sales have been down 60 percent from where it used to be. Some days, they had to close because workers were blocking the driveway.
Melody Tektas said that some of the customers would take half an hour to get here. Now that the project – on their side of Route 9 – is done, they feel like they have to rebuild. “It’s like starting a brand new business.”
The stress was so great it even spilled into their personal lives. She said the state didn’t seem to care about the little businesses that were getting hurt.
“It destroyed our life, period,” she said.
If you look at the intersection on Google maps, the project is still being worked on and the sign in front of Corinne Jewelers is criticizing it.
“I personally haven’t seen a worker there in weeks,” said Corinne owner Ryan Blumenthal. “There’s no urgency on their side to finish.”
He can only imagine that the crew is working on other jobs right now. Gravel companies close in the winter. You can still get some, but it will cost more.
“Unless they are getting fined or a timeline for them is set, what’s their urgency? That’s where the state dropped the ball – a quarter mile road project with seemingly no deadline.
“The state doesn’t talk to us. It’s laughable when we read an article that says we’ve been informed or someone’s been talking to us from the state. It’s not true,” he said.
Fortunately, he said that his business is a destination; he doesn’t rely on traffic going by. They’ve been here a long time, and the customer base knows them.
Carlo Boemio, owner of Attilio’s Pizza, said that no one wants to brave the roads to come to the shop.
“Our delivery picked up but our walk-in crowd is down a lot,” he said. There are other ways to get to the restaurant, from James Street, but not a lot of customers know that.
It’s hard to tell how much the construction impacted business, since the restaurant only re-opened in 2014 after a fire.
“We’re along the path of the Egyptians beating us with putting up the pyramids for putting up a divider on a little bit of road,” he said.
The store owners all agreed that unforeseen circumstances can set a project back, but that this goes beyond the scope of what could go wrong on a project.
Larry Schuster, of Schuster’s Toms River Car Wash said his business closed for one day because the water was shut down, he said. Otherwise, he remained open. It was just a lot quieter.
“When the contractors are here, they work like mules,” he said. “They don’t leave nothing unturned.” However, they are gone for weeks at a time. He said he could understand if the weather was really bad. But there are perfectly good days wasted.
He said there’s no legal avenue to sue the state because there’s still a way to get to the property, despite how difficult it is. He was thankful for a solid core of customers that are keeping him afloat.
“We’re optimistic it’ll be over soon but right now we’re struggling hard,” he said.
He talked about how vague the state is. “They don’t tell us nothing. We’ve never spoken to anyone from the state. I don’t even have a number to call.”
Although none of the business owners interviewed for this story said that they have been in contact with the DOT, the DOT repeated that they have been communicating with business owners.
“NJDOT has been working closely with business owners and the community while working to complete the Route 166 improvements project in Toms River,” Schapiro said. “During active construction, the project team visited business owners in the work zone several times each week to provide advance notice whenever construction was expected to begin near them. In addition, NJDOT has been working with business owners to accommodate and maintain access to businesses during construction.”
Local Officials’ Hands Are Tied
Since they are state roads, the town and county can’t legally do the work. But residents still think it’s a local government problem.
“I can’t tell you how many hundreds of calls we’ve got complaining,” Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher said.
Councilman Maurice Hill noted how the first coat of paving was supposed to be done in January but that didn’t happen. He said it’s typical of how Trenton treats Ocean County, pointing also to the cuts in state aid to schools.
Councilman George Wittmann Jr. said he was stuck in traffic the other day. The cars were all backed up, it was a beautiful day, and there was no evidence of any workers on site.
If the county road department had been allowed to work on it, the project would have wrapped in a year, Freeholder Joseph Vicari said.
“There’s still no light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. It’s been a major hardship for local businesses and drivers. A while ago, he said a contractor told him if he kept complaining, they’d leave the work and do other jobs.
“There’s a better chance of unicorns flying over Ocean County before Ocean County is treated fairly by the state of New Jersey,” Vicari said.
Local officials have often argued that the county pays more in taxes to the state than they get back in services, and cite this construction as one more piece of proof.
“Route 9 in Ocean County is the same as it’s been since 1929,” he said. “Everyone points the finger. Just get the job done.”