This 2002 photo shows the northbound NJ 21 Freeway at EXIT 11A (River Drive) in Passaic. (Photo by Douglas Kerr, www.gribblenation.com.)

DEVELOPMENT OF THE ROUTE 21 FREEWAY: As early as the 1930's, officials began planning a modernization of the existing McCarter Highway in Newark, and a new north-south highway - an extension of the McCarter Highway - along the Passaic River. The route was to provide free-flowing traffic for existing and projected auto and truck traffic from Newark Airport north to the Paterson area.

In the postwar era, the NJ 21 Freeway took on additional significance with the loss of railroad routes that made the area a commercial center. The road was perceived not also as a cure for the ailing cities of Newark, Passaic and Paterson, but also as a remedy for chronic congestion along local streets. Community groups such as the Passaic Valley Citizens Planning Association recommended that the NJ 21 Freeway be given consideration by the New Jersey State Highway Department.

The NJ 21 Freeway first appeared officially in the 1951 Passaic County Master Plan. Later, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) and the Tri-State Transportation Commission described the purpose of the NJ 21 Freeway (also known unofficially as the McCarter Freeway) as follows:

The NJ 21 Freeway will connect Interstate 280 in Newark and Interstate 80 in East Paterson. The freeway, which continues the route of existing McCarter Highway, will relieve north-south traffic in this congested area. It will distribute downtown Newark traffic for radial routes, and provide an alternate route to the Garden State Parkway for truck traffic.

The first section of the NJ 21 Freeway between Fourth Avenue in Newark and EXIT 8 (Park Avenue) in Nutley opened in 1958. Beginning in Newark, the freeway has a six-lane, dual-deck configuration, with northbound traffic using the lower level, and southbound traffic using the upper level.

Constructed along the right-of-way of the existing McCarter Highway, this section, with its shortened acceleration-deceleration ramps and lack of shoulders, is characteristic of pre-Interstate era expressways. Left-hand exits were built as part of the original design, but one left-hand left in Newark, the northbound EXIT 4 (Chester Avenue-Riverside Avenue) in Newark, was closed in the early 1990's. Continuing north through Belleville and Nutley, the six-lane freeway was constructed at grade level along an abandoned railroad right-of-way.

Extensions were completed north to EXIT 10 (Passaic Park) in 1962, to EXIT 11 (River Drive-Main Avenue) in 1968, and to Monroe Street in Passaic in 1973. Direct connections were originally planned for I-80 and I-280, but the freeway connections required for these connections were met with opposition in the cities of Newark and Passaic.

In this 1999 photo near the southern terminus of the NJ 21 Freeway in Newark, the southbound lanes are elevated, while the northbound lanes are at ground level. Long-range plans call for a reconstruction of the southbound viaduct. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

COMPLETING THE NORTHERN EXTENSION: During the 1960's, state highway officials conducted location studies for the northern extension of the NJ 21 Freeway from downtown Passaic to I-80 (Bergen-Passaic Expressway) in Elmwood Park. The proposed three-mile-long route was to include a crossing of the Passaic River in the vicinity of Dundee Dam, and a spur along Randolph Avenue to US 46 in Clifton. At the northern terminus in Elmwood Park, a new EXIT 61 was to be constructed on I-80 for the proposed NJ 21 Freeway and Bergen CR 507 (River Road). The NJDOT had acquired most of the land for this extension by the end of the 1960's.

Design of the northern extension of the NJ 21 Freeway was suspended in the early 1970's following the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act, and the subsequent determination that an environmental impact statement (EIS) was required. Efforts by the NJDOT to begin the environmental work were postponed due to strong opposition by Elmwood Park, Paterson and other corridor municipalities to the portion of the alignment on the eastern shore of the Passaic River.

Local opposition was focused on the potential displacement of prime industrial properties on the east side of the Passaic River. Community groups also believed that existing and future traffic would be better served by a freeway extension solely on the west side of the river.

In the early 1980's, officials from the affected communities formed a Route 21 Steering Committee to determine the future of the route. George Homcy, president of the North Jersey Regional Chamber of Commerce, and local businessman Mel Cohen literally convinced the chief engineer at the NJDOT to pull plans for the NJ 21 Freeway off the shelf. Later, Homcy and Cohen headed efforts to get the support of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg and Congressman Robert A. Roe, who were instrumental in obtaining Federal funds for the route.

During the next decade and a half, the NJDOT conducted feasibility studies to construct the northern extension of the NJ 21 Freeway. In 1996, the NJDOT submitted the final EIS report to the Federal Highway Administration outlining plans for the proposed extension. The proposed route was to go north along the Dundee Canal to Randolph Avenue, then continue northwest to the US 46-Lexington Avenue interchange. The approximately 1.8-mile-long route, which was reduced from the originally planned six lanes to four lanes, was estimated to result in a 25 percent reduction in traffic on local streets.

The NJ 21 extension project involved an unprecedented level of cooperation between transportation officials and civic leaders. The new "west side" alignment finally agreed upon did not require the displacement of any residences, but required the displacement of four businesses. (To mitigate the effect on the community, several new "vest-pocket" parks were created, and noise abatement walls were installed.) In comparison, the original "east side" alignment would have required the taking of 61 homes and nine businesses.

George Kowal, New Jersey contributor to nycroads.com, posted the following comment about the NJ 21 Freeway extension in misc.transport.road:

The new NJ 21 Freeway extension passes through heavy industrial tracts, and then follows the western bank of the Passaic River to established, working-class residential areas. Because it borders residential areas, sound walls have been erected. In a section of town called Botany Village, a new shopping center was constructed in anticipation of the highway.

As the new freeway extension continues north, still following the riverbank, there is a high overhead interchange where US 46 takes the high overpass, while NJ 21 continues underneath. Just past this point, US 46 takes a high-speed, two-lane right turn as it continues east. Continuing north from US 46, the NJ 20 arterial continues along the west bank of the Passaic River, intersecting with I-80 before ending in Paterson.

The cost of the NJ 21 Freeway "west side" alignment was $136 million, 15 percent less than that estimated for the "east side" alignment to I-80. The state share of the cost was $45 million, with Federal transportation funds covering the balance.  Construction of the NJ 21 Freeway extension, which began in late 1997, was opened to traffic on December 20, 2000.

UPCOMING IMPROVEMENTS: The NJDOT has planned the following improvements to the NJ 21 Freeway:

  • The state plans to lengthen the "crest vertical curve" carrying NJ 21 over Park Avenue (at EXIT 8) in Nutley. It also plans to modify ramps to contemporary safety standards (particularly along the southbound ramps), as well as repair two structures and a retaining wall. The $6.2 million project is scheduled for completion in 2008.

  • As part of the NJ 3 Passaic River Bridge replacement project, the NJDOT plans to extend the acceleration-deceleration lane at EXIT 9 (NJ 3 Freeway) in Clifton. The $1.5 million lane extension project is scheduled to continue through 2008.

  • Beyond 2006, the NJDOT long-term plans to either rehabilitate or replace the elevated section of the NJ 21 Freeway just north of downtown Newark. No cost estimate or construction date has been provided for this project. At the present time, the NJDOT does not plan to extend the freeway section south to I-280.

According to the NJDOT, the NJ 21 Freeway handles approximately 60,000 vehicles per day (AADT).

Two 2000 views of the newly completed section of the NJ 21 Freeway through Passaic. LEFT: Northbound on the NJ 21 Freeway at EXIT 12 (Market Street). RIGHT: Northbound on the NJ 21 Freeway at its terminus with US 46, just south of I-80. (Photos by Charlie O'Reilly.)

THE UNBUILT SOUTHERN EXTENSION: In 1961, the New Jersey State Highway Department announced a comprehensive plan to alleviate congestion through Newark. The "Newark Transportation Study" recommended that NJ 21 be reconstructed as a freeway south to I-280, then as a reconstructed arterial through downtown Newark. Controlled access service was to be provided by the NJ 75 (Newark Midtown) Freeway, which was to begin at the existing NJ 21 Freeway section in Newark. The NJ 75 Freeway was to swing west, continue south along the Belmont Avenue corridor, then swing back east to meet US 1 and US 9 near Newark Airport. Owing to community opposition, the NJ 75 Freeway was canceled in the early 1970's.

In 1972, the NJDOT proposed a southern extension of the NJ 21 Freeway through downtown Newark to I-78. The extended NJ 21 Freeway was part of a far-reaching plan to revitalize Newark and boost the Newark-Elizabeth intermodal port area. Existing sections of NJ 21 (McCarter Highway), a four-lane arterial boulevard with turning lanes, feature substandard clearances (some less than 13 feet) between downtown Newark and Newark Airport. To expedite construction, the NJDOT pushed for Interstate highway funding, which would have guaranteed 90 percent Federal financing and 10 percent state financing, for the entire length of the NJ 21 Freeway.

The NJDOT specifically stated the purpose of the $130 million freeway extension as follows:

The improvement of the existing NJ 21 in Newark from Interstate 78 to Ogden Street will coincide with a massive urban renewal project in the vicinity of Penn Plaza. The changing land use patterns of the area, coupled with the traffic demanding an improved facility, will necessitate the upgrading of this 3.8-mile-long section of highway to a freeway.

The "missing exit numbers" on the McCarter Freeway were to be filled in as follows:

EXIT 3: Interstate 280
EXIT 2: Market Street
EXIT 1: Interstate 78

IMPROVING THE EXISTING ROUTE 21 THROUGH NEWARK: Although the southern NJ 21 Freeway extension was canceled years ago, construction is underway on an improvement of McCarter Highway from downtown Newark south to Newark Airport.

Beginning in 1997, the NJDOT began replacing the old NJ 21 viaduct over the Amtrak-New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor railroad lines in Newark. Earlier in the decade, the viaduct, which dates back to the 1920's, carried approximately 75,000 vehicles per day (AADT), and in the face of growing traffic demands, had become structurally deficient, geometrically substandard and functionally obsolete. Its 44-foot-wide roadway carried four 11-foot-wide lanes (two lanes in each direction), with no median barrier or shoulders.

The three stages of the $43 million NJ 21 viaduct project were as follows:

  • In 1998, the four piers of the substructure were completed. This work was expedited in order to minimize conflicts with ongoing and proposed projects (such as the Newark Airport monorail) along the Northeast Corridor right-of-way.

  • The second part of the project consisted of constructing the main viaduct of the Northeast Corridor right-of-way, where about 400 trains pass each day. The new main viaduct, which has a design capacity of 110,000 vehicles per day (AADT), provides six 12-foot-wide travel lanes (three lanes in each direction), 12-foot-wide outer shoulders, 10-foot-wide inner shoulders, and a center concrete barrier curb. It consists of three curved plate girder spans measuring 210 feet, 270 feet and 210 feet respectively. This work, which included the widening of connecting ramps to the nearby I-78 viaduct, was completed in September 2000.

  • The final phase of the NJ 21 viaduct project consisted of constructing the touchdown interchanges at the northern and southern ends of the project, and demolishing the old viaduct. Construction of this final stage began in June 2000, and was completed on December 8, 2003.

In a separate $108 million project, the NJDOT widened 2.1 miles of the existing at-grade McCarter Highway through downtown Newark. The existing NJ 21 was widened to include turn lanes and shoulders in each direction from Lafayette Street north to Passaic Street, including the area around the I-280 interchange. At several intersections, traffic signals and left-turns were eliminated to improve circulation. Both projects were completed in 2006.

This 2004 photo shows the northbound NJ 21 approaching the rebuilt viaduct over the Amtrak-NJ Transit Northeast Corridor Line. The $43 million project to replace this viaduct was completed in 2003. There are no plans to extend the NJ 21 Freeway south through downtown Newark to I-78. (Photo by Douglas Kerr, www.gribblenation.com.)

A NEW "3di" FOR ESSEX AND PASSAIC COUNTIES: The NJ 21 Freeway should be completed as a controlled-access route between I-280 (at EXIT 15) in Newark and I-80 (at EXIT 60) in Passaic. The proposed extension of the freeway to I-280 should be included in the ongoing redevelopment of Newark. Interchange improvements should be made at I-80 and I-280.

The newly extended freeway should be designated I-480, a connecting Interstate highway serving the Passaic River urban corridor between I-80 and I-280. (Non-chargeable mileage may be used for the Interstate designation, as has been done in other states.) Fulfilling its original goals, the north-south freeway will distribute traffic for east-west routes, and serve as a viable truck alternative to the Garden State Parkway.

In 1996, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) revived the southern extension of the NJ 21 Freeway to I-78 as a possible alternative to improve north-south traffic flow through Newark. Further study on this route, including its potential impact on downtown Newark, should be considered before pursuing this option.

SOURCES: "Newark Transportation Study," New Jersey State Highway Department (1961); Regional Highways: Status Report, Tri-State Transportation Commission (1962); "Public Hearing for Route 21 Alignment," New Jersey State Highway Department (9/21/1966); Transportation 1985: A Regional Plan, Tri-State Transportation Commission (1966); New Jersey Highway Facts, New Jersey Department of Transportation (1967); Master Plan for Transportation, New Jersey Department of Transportation (1972); "Fiscal Plan To Revivify Newark Offered" by Walter H. Waggoner, The New York Times (7/15/1973); "Newark Turns Into a Lab To Coordinate Transport, The New York Times (3/14/1975); "Route 280-Route 21 Ramp: Environmental Assessment," Federal Highway Administration and New Jersey Department of Transportation (1984); "Highlights of the Report by the Regional Plan Association: Mobility, Improving Links with the Suburbs" by Thomas J. Lueck, The New York Times (2/14/1996); "Route 21 Freeway Extension Project: Administrative Action Final Environmental Impact Statement and Section 4(f) Statement," Federal Highway Administration and New Jersey Department of Transportation (1996); "Route 21 Completion Near" by Thomas J. Fitzgerald and Maia Davis, The Bergen Record (6/22/1997); "Missing Link Is Finished After 28 Years" by Jeffrey Page, The Bergen Record (12/21/2000); "Route 21's Final Leg Is Opened Officially" by Josh Gohlke, The Bergen Record (12/27/2000); "Traffic Threatens Timetable for Arena" by George E. Jordan, The Star-Ledger (8/12/2001); North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority; Chris Blaney; Phil Case; Frank Curcio; Rich Dean; Daniel T. Dey; George Kowal; Arthur Malkin; Raymond C. Martin; Christopher G. Mason; Dan Moraseski; Chalie O'Reilly; William F. Yurasko.

  • NJ 21 and I-480 shields by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.

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