A map of the never-built extension of I-95 through Hopewell.
Many Americans think of I-95 as an interstate highway running from Maine to Florida in a line that is unbroken in the big cities of the north as well as the rural backwaters of the south.

But a close following of the map of New Jersey will get them lost in Hopewell Township because of the 1982 decision of federal, state and local officials to scrap the originally planned route of the interstate.

Northbound on I-95 these day, the interstate traveler crosses into Jersey and in a few miles realizes the roadway’s name has changed to I-295 south and that it’s slowly curving off in the wrong direction.

It’s not what the first planners wanted. They envisioned a highway branching off today’s interstate just east of Route 31 and running through the Hopewell Valley and Somerset County to a spot on I-287 only a short ride from the New Jersey Turnpike.

But the planners weren’t dealing with poor farmers and hick townies. Some of Jersey’s wealthiest and most influential sophisticates were opponents of the plan to run I-95 through the valley along a route that just skirted Pennington and Hopewell Borough.

It’s some of the same people, ironically, who today are so vexed by all the trucks using routes 1 and 31 and 206 to get from I-95 in Bucks County, Pa., to the turnpike, or to avoid about half the southbound turnpike’s toll by cutting through central Jersey to pick up the interstate where its name changes from I-295 to I-95 in Mercer County.

Planned from the early 1960s, long stretches of the 1,000-mile highway had been built by 1970, despite opposition from urban neighborhoods in the north that had to be leveled and southern towns that feared losing the business of travelers passing through.

By 1980, transportation officials from Washington and Trenton had been talking with Hopewell Valley folks about the route for almost 20 years. But as lawyer Regina Meredith pointed out the other day, the planners always seem to have a different path in mind whenever they showed up for a meeting at the Hopewell Township municipal building.

At one point, Meredith remembered, the plan called for the road to run right between her Elm Ridge Road home and the neighboring grounds of her in-laws’ property. From there, she noted, it would have run through the pricey Elm Ridge development, where homes were selling for as much as $400,000 even then.

Paying off Hopewell Valley homeowners whose places would have to be leveled for the highway was going make the planned 23-mile stretch the most expensive portion of the interstate ever built. The planners did all they could to run the road past expensive properties, Meredith said.

The result, she said, was stronger opposition from people who knew that the roadway would run near their homes "and the Hopewell Valley would become a different place. They didn’t want to be living in a different kind of place.’’

A community group headed by the late Herb Terpening, who had cut his teeth fighting construction of the dam in the Hopewell Valley a generation earlier, by 1980 had convinced township and other area mayors to get behind a plan to scrap the lost link in I-95.

One who joined was Mercer County Executive Bill Mathesius, who lived in the valley and was influential with Jersey politicians of all stripe. The cause was helped when Republican Tom Kean won the gubernatorial election of 1981.

Soon after taking office, Kean’s people started lobby President Reagan and Jersey’s two senators to "de-designate" the Hopewell portion of I-95 and free up the $245 million slated for its construction for other roadway projects.

One of the few opponents of the idea was industrialist Joseph "Bo" Sullivan, who had opposed Kean in the GOP gubernatorial primary and later was named chairman of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority by the gracious governor.

Sullivan warned all through 1982 that Jersey’s growth patterns showed the road would be needed someday. He also said the project would create jobs right away and, eventually, a boom in business and industry.

But Sullivan’s arguments fell on deaf ears. Four days before Christmas 1982, Reagan signed the de-designation bill, and Hopewell Valleyans breathed easy in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be hearing the rumble of trucks on the highway when they went to bed at night.

By 1992, however, Gov. Florio had approved turnpike toll increases that added $10 to the cost of traveling the full length, and truckers in particular had found routes for avoiding the expense.

These days, they’re clamoring in the Hopewell Valley and elsewhere in central Jersey for the state to ban all trucks from routes 1, 31 and 206 and for massive expenditures to widen those highways where possible.
Back to The Capital Century home page
1982: The interstate that wasn't
By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
1900s    1910s    1920s    1930s    1940s    1950s    1960s    1970s    1980s    1990s