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This 2019 photo shows the westbound NJ 3 Freeway at the NJ 17 interchange in Rutherford. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)


10.8 miles (17.4 kilometers)

CONNECTING NORTH JERSEY WITH THE LINCOLN TUNNEL: First conceived in the mid-1930's to connect to the Lincoln Tunnel (which was then under construction), the NJ 3 Freeway is a pre-Interstate era route that provides express access to Passaic County. Beginning at the NJ 495 Freeway-Tonnelle Avenue (US 1-US 9) interchange in North Bergen, the NJ 3 Freeway intersects important north-south routes, including the New Jersey Turnpike (I-95), NJ 17, the NJ 21 Freeway, and the Garden State Parkway before ending at US 46 in Clifton.

The original NJ 3 went along what later became NJ 153 (now decommissioned) through Secaucus, and Paterson Plank Road (current NJ 120) through East Rutherford. Continuing west into Passaic, the original NJ 3 went along local streets before continuing north along the alignment of McLean Boulevard (current NJ 20) in Paterson.

The NJ 3 Freeway, which began life as "Route S-3" (this designation applied west of NJ 120), was intended to be a bypass of Paterson Plank Road. Construction of the four-lane divided route began early in 1940, but was interrupted with the outbreak of World War II more than a year later. The postwar growth in vehicular traffic prompted officials to finish the expressway as quickly as possible.

In 1948, chief project engineer Maurice Radus related the following to
The New York Times about the progress his construction crews made on Route 3:

The new highway forms a great reddish scar across the countryside, for it has been hewn out of red shale. Great electric shovels, which can load a truck with three scoops, still are chewing at the banks.

Weird machines and the latest engineering techniques have been called into play. In the highway cut that slices between Lyndhurst and Rutherford, a machine called a "gradall" was at work. Like the claw of an overgrown insect, its scraper telescopes in and out, scratching steep slopes into an even grade.

Where the Secaucus Bypass (NJ 3 Freeway) will cross the meadows, the water is being siphoned out of the marsh by the sand wick process, a technique that cutes settling time to a ninth of that formerly required. Every ten feet, a 14-inch pipe filled with sand is driven as much as 91 feet into the swamps. Then the pipe, or "mandrel," is hauled out, leaving a column of sand inside the muck. More sand is spread over the area. As the roadway embankment is heaped on top, its weight forces water up through the sand and out the sides.

One of the most challenging parts of the NJ 3 Freeway project was the construction of a drawbridge over the Passaic River to link Clifton and Rutherford. While traffic crept along a twisting road leading to a swing bridge, work continued above on the new bridge that eventually replaced the old swing bridge. Over the Hackensack River, a new through-truss bridge was built to carry four lanes of traffic.

The entire 10.8-mile length of the NJ 3 Freeway, which cost $10 million to construct, opened to traffic on July 31, 1949. When the expressway first opened, it shaved 20 to 30 minutes off the commuting times of those driving between Midtown Manhattan and northern New Jersey.

This 2019 photo shows the westbound NJ 3 Freeway at the Passaic River Bridge. The bridge and nearby approaches were rebuilt between 2008 and 2011. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

INTERSTATE DESIGNATION DENIED, BUT IMPROVEMENTS MADE: In 1955, the Federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) selected the NJ 3-US 46 corridor from the Lincoln Tunnel Approach (NJ 495) and the New Jersey Turnpike (I-95) in Secaucus west to the Bergen-Passaic Expressway (I-80) in Wayne as one of the original Interstate highway routes. Several years later, the BPR designated the route as "FAI Corridor 105."  However, after the New Jersey State Highway Department convinced the BPR that bringing the NJ 3 Freeway up to Interstate standards would be prohibitively expensive, the "FAI Corridor 105" route was shifted to the current I-280 (Essex Freeway) in 1957.

Nevertheless, a number of improvements have been made to the NJ 3 Freeway over the past few decades. In the 1960s, the NJ 3 Freeway was widened to six lanes throughout its entire length. During this time, a new plate-girder bridge was constructed parallel to the existing through-truss bridge over the Hackensack River. The new bridge carried four lanes of westbound traffic, while the existing truss bridge carried four lanes of eastbound traffic. In the 1970s, improvements associated with the Meadowlands development were made at NJ 17 interchange in Rutherford, and at the interchange with the New Jersey Turnpike (I-95) and Paterson Plank Road (NJ 120) in East Rutherford.

The 1995 reconstruction of the Berry's Creek Bridge (at milepost 6.9) brought the NJ 3 Freeway through the area of the bridge up to eight lanes. Prior to reconstruction, traffic on NJ 3 used the original 1948 "S-3" bridge, which was highly arched to allow vessels to pass underneath. The old six-lane bridge was a constant source of congestion due to its awkward design.

ROUTE 3 TODAY: The NJ 3 Freeway is designed with six to eight 12-foot-wide lanes and 12-foot-wide shoulders. A four-foot-high concrete ("Jersey") barrier separates opposing traffic flows. East of the NJ 21 Freeway interchange in Passaic, the NJ 3 Freeway resembles an Interstate-grade highway. In addition, there is a local-express, dual-dual configuration between the New Jersey Turnpike and the NJ 495 Freeway in Secaucus.

Although the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) classifies NJ 3 as an "urban freeway-expressway," it may be misleading to call NJ 3 a "full freeway" west of NJ 21. Some substandard design characteristics still exist from the NJ 21 Freeway interchange west to the US 46 interchange in Clifton. However, NJ 3 does have shoulder rumble strips, even in the substandard portions. (One telltale sign that NJ 3 is not up to full freeway standards is the recently installed NJDOT mileposts and half-mileposts. In contrast, "full freeways" get mileposts and tenth-mileposts.)

The NJ 3 Freeway serves as a critical east-west route through Hudson, Bergen and Passaic counties. According to the NJDOT, NJ 3 carries 140,000 vehicles per day (AADT) from the I-95 / NJ 495 junction west to NJ 21, and 125,000 vehicles per day from NJ 21 west to US 46.

MAJOR REBUILD OVER THE PASSAIC RIVER: In 1998, the NJDOT unveiled plans for a major reconstruction project on the NJ 3 Freeway through Passaic, Lyndhurst and Rutherford. The $266 project will include the following improvements:

  • The existing six-lane moveable bridge over the Passaic River was replaced with a new fixed bridge. Originally built as a four-lane structure, high traffic volumes over the years prompted the conversion of the shoulders into traffic lanes, creating hazardous conditions at the interchanges on either side of the bridge. The existing bridge, which has not had an opening since the 1980s, required frequent maintenance repairs to the concrete slabs on the approach spans, and to the open steel grating deck on the moveable span. The new fixed bridge has six through-traffic lanes, an additional lane in each direction for acceleration-deceleration, and shoulders. Replacement took place in stages, one direction at a time.

  • On either side of the Passaic River Bridge, the NJDOT rebuilt entrance and exit ramps to provide improved geometry (and safety) at the NJ 21 Freeway interchange in Passaic, and at the Riverside Avenue interchange in Rutherford.

  • Along a two-mile-long stretch of the NJ 3 Freeway mainline, the NJDOT also built new shoulders and acceleration-deceleration lanes. The widening of the mainline required the erection of new bridges carrying the freeway over the NJ 21 ramps and the New Jersey Transit tracks in Clifton, and the construction of new bridges over the freeway at Orient Way, Ridge Road, and Park Avenue.

  • The NJDOT also made improvements to service roads and local intersections to increase safety and relieve congestion.

The NJDOT completed the final engineering and environmental design by early 2008, and built the project between mid-2008 and mid-2011.

CHANGES FOR INTERCHANGES: In 2003, the NJDOT rebuilt the interchange between the NJ 495 Freeway, the NJ 3 Freeway and US 1-US 9 (Tonnelle Avenue). The $16 million project featured the modification of ramps between NJ 3, NJ 495 and US 1-US 9, the construction of a third southbound lane on US 1-US 9, and the rebuilding of the US 1-US 9 bridge over the Amtrak-NJ Transit Northeast Corridor line.

Further east, the NJDOT rebuilt the ramp from southbound NJ 120 (Paterson Plank Road) to the eastbound NJ 3 Freeway. Previously, NJ 120 traffic merged onto the left lane of the freeway, and motorists bound for the Meadowlands Parkway exit had to cross four lanes in less than one-quarter mile over the Hackensack River. The project would replace the existing ramp with a new ramp that joins the right lane of eastbound NJ 3. Completed in 2008, the new $20 million ramp was part of $71 million of traffic improvements around the Meadowlands in advance of the new Met Life Stadium and the American Dream shopping-entertainment complex.

CHANGES ON HOLD, FOR NOW: In the early 2000s, the NJDOT announced plans to rebuild the interchange between NJ 3 and US 46 at the western terminus in Clifton. Proposed improvements to the NJ 3 / US 46 / Valley Road interchange the reconstruction and reconfiguration of ramps, construction of new bridges with 16'6"-standard clearances, installation of new traffic signals at the interchanges, and erection of new sound walls. Specifically, three-lane connections will be constructed at the interchange to replace the existing two-lane connections to relieve congestion, and westbound US 46 will be realigned to converge with westbound NJ 3 from the right to improve safety. The NJDOT conducted public hearings on the $200 million project during 2003, and scheduled construction for the 2007-2011 time frame. However, as of 2019, the state has yet to begin work on this interchange.

This 2008 photo shows the eastbound NJ 3 Freeway at the Meadowland Parkway exit in Secaucus. The Manhattan skyline lies ahead. (Photo by David Golub,

Chris Blaney, New Jersey contributor to and misc.transport.road, recommends the following measures to improve the NJ 3 Freeway:

I believe that the NJ 3-US 46 intersection should be improved to a full freeway-grade interchange. (The existing arterial interchange, which was designed in the early 1940s, is woefully inefficient.) Like the NJ 17-NJ 4 interchange project, it would take several years and probably cost in excess of $100 million, but it would allow NJ 3's six lanes to meld neatly into US 46's six lanes. Many of the traffic problems would be taken out if this were done.

Improved signing should be installed, and exit numbers should be included along the NJ 3 Freeway.

SOURCES: "Road To Aid Users of Tunnel" by George M. Mathieu, The New York Times (8/10/1941); "Superhighway Job Speeded in Jersey," The New York Times (8/16/1948); "Secaucus Road To Open," The New York Times (7/31/1949); "FAI 105 Interstate Highway Corridor: Recommendation Report," New Jersey State Highway Department (1957); "Route 3 Relief: NJDOT To Replace, Widen Bridge" by Monsy Alvarado, The Bergen Record (1/15/1998); "Route 3: Passaic River Crossing," New Jersey Department of Transportation (2001); North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority; Chris Blaney; Jack Buffolano; Frank Curcio; Adam Froehlig; Raymond C. Martin; Christopher G. Mason; Dan Moraseski; Charlie O'Reilly; Jeff Taylor; William F. Yurasko.

  • NJ 3 shield by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.





  • NJ 3 Freeway exit list by Steve Anderson.

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