Sewer -> Route 73 Traffic?
Monday. December 25, 2000
FEW ANSWERS ON THE ROAD MORE TRAVELED
CONGESTION INCREASINGLY GRIPS ROUTE 73. AN OPEN STRETCH
IN VOORHEES IS FUELING DEBATE OVER DEVELOPMENT.
By Brendan January, INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF
Each weekday morning, Donna Donze leaves her townhouse in Atco and steers
her four-year-old Mazda sedan onto Route 73.
There, she finds herself surrounded by hulking sport-utility vehicles, compact sports cars, and a small army of 18-wheel trucks as she heads north toward her job as a marketing specialist in Mount Laurel.
Donze's employer, Avnet, is only 12 miles from her home. But these days it takes her more than a half-hour to get there because of ever-lengthening backups and overflowing traffic.
"It's a nightmare," the 41-year-old said.
Stretching 28 miles from the Delaware River to the Atlantic City Expressway, and passing through 14 municipalities, Route 73 has been an essential part of the South Jersey driving experience for decades.
Increasingly, it is becoming part of an experience that many motorists would rather forget.
Part outdated highway and part commuter horror, the four-lane road is choked with traffic during rush hour, leading to nerve-racking delays, missed dinners, and plenty of fender-benders.
"When it rains or snows," Donze said, "forget it. It's a parking lot. There's nothing I can do."
Traffic jams are nothing new in South Jersey. As the region has grown, many of its roads have become clogged. What distinguish the backups on Route 73 are the size of the road and its importance to the region. The 47-year-old highway is a major route for commuters and shoppers traveling north and south.
A development boom in the last decade has only added to the problem. Box stores, car dealerships and mini-malls have sprouted along Route 73 like a blanket of crown vetch. Weekend shoppers and soccer moms pouring out of nearby communities add to the delays.
"I cringe when I see more developments going up," Donze said. "Because I know what's coming." More traffic and more delays.
A new wave of building is creeping south along Route 73. A mini-mall featuring Trader Joe's, Gap and Williams-Sonoma has opened in Evesham, and a larger mall is being erected nearby.
Just across the border in Voorhees, officials hope to replicate that kind of development in one of the last stretches of open roadway between Pennsauken and Berlin Borough.
The officials are planning at least $3.7 million worth of improvements that they expect will spur growth along the highway. "For sale" signs have appeared in open fields and in front of billboards and weathered shops.
Voorhees officials say they have little choice except to promote development along the busy corridor, which more than 39,000 vehicles use daily. The 11-square-mile township is crowded with single-family residences, which use more in services than the township collects in taxes, officials say.
"My take is that we absolutely need it. We need ratables developed on 73," said Harry Platt, a Township Committee member. "There is a [potential] tax base there with zero services. It's pure revenue."
Township officials said they wanted to model roadside development after Mount Laurel's and avoid what Platt called "a mess" - a clutter of fast-food outlets and convenience stores.
We want to put things together so it looks uniform, classy," Platt said. "Everything [in Mount Laurel] is one style. It's set off the road. There's some uniform look."
But not everyone agrees with the township's plan to develop along the highway.
"It will increase traffic in the area, and we are not convinced that commercial ratables will provide the tax relief that some people have come to expect," said Lori Volpe, president of the nonprofit Voorhees Environmental and Recreational Alliance.
Township officials have promised to take traffic into account and want township engineers - not developers with their own interests to protect - to perform any studies.
"No one wants to see 15 traffic lights on 73 with stop-and-go traffic," Committeeman Gary Schlosser said.
But some antidevelopment forces said another traffic study is not needed to understand the backups plaguing Route 73.
"We think it's sufficient to go to Evesham and Mount Laurel at rush hour to see an effective traffic study," Volpe said.
The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, a government organization that studies traffic and growth in the Philadelphia area, said Route 73 faces increased congestion.
Population in the towns along the highway is expected to jump by 34 percent in the next two decades to more than 400,000, according to a study released by the commission in August.
Much of that growth will occur in Voorhees, where the population is expected to swell by nearly 15,000, to 39,000. Employment is projected to surge by nearly half.
The bistate planning commission already classifies Route 73 from Maple Shade to Evesham as congested. By 2020, it predicts, all of Route 73 will be clogged.
The problem, said the commission's John Ward, is that every municipality is eager to cash in on the ratable prizes offered by Route 73.
"Municipalities get to do what they want, and people don't want to give up the power," said Ward, who oversaw the commission's Route 73 study. "No one has a hammer over them to say, 'You can't do this.' "
Meanwhile, state and federal agencies have suggestions to lighten traffic, but they don't have solutions.
"You can't build your way out of congestion. The more lanes you add, the more cars come back, and soon you're back in the same situation," said William Ragozine, executive director of the Cross County Connection-Transportation Management Association. The publicly funded agency encourages drivers to find alternatives to their cars.
"If you could do it all over again, you'd lay a rail line or a bus route" along Route 73, Ward said.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation plans to spend about $583 million on highway projects in South Jersey. About $55 million is earmarked to replace the Marlton traffic circle, where Route 73 meets Route 70, and the smaller traffic circle in Berlin Township.
Those steps may lessen local congestion, officials say, but will not solve larger traffic woes.
Ward warned that a clogged Route 73 may choke off the economic boom that fueled its development in the first place.
"Businesses see all that traffic - they love to have the traffic pass their front door -
but it may get to the point that people start to avoid it because of the congestion," Ward said.
Donze has tried to find alternatives to the highway. For a time, she used a back road, but there were too many traffic lights. She tried another route, then another.
Reluctantly, she got back onto Route 73.
"That's what you have to do," she said.
Traffic builds up in Marlton on an ever-more-congested Route 73. Officials in Voorhees plan at least $3.7 million worth of improvements that they expect will spur growth along the highway. (MICHAEL PLUNKETT / Inquirer Suburban Staff)