- Associated Press - Monday, April 7, 2014

JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) - If there were lingering doubts about whether the aging Pulaski Skyway needed a major makeover, they likely were erased when workers toiling on the bridge’s underside last year knocked away concrete to expose the steel underneath.

“That steel hadn’t seen the light of day for 82 years,” Richard Hammer, assistant manager for capital program management for New Jersey’s Department of Transportation, said Monday as he stood under the span where it passes over a tangled web of roads west of the Holland Tunnel.

What emerged wasn’t pretty: rusting, corroded steel panels sitting barely a foot under the bridge’s roadway deck, riddled with holes. The culprit, according to Hammer, was decades of road salt leaking through the roadway joints above. In some places, blocks of wood were put in to shore up the beams.

Repairing or replacing the bridge in more than 20 such spots along the 3.5-mile span will be part of the department’s job for the next two years as it repairs and refurbishes the Pulaski at a cost of about $1 billion. The skyway, which opened in 1932, will see its roadway decks, railings and drainage systems replaced.

The undertaking will force a paradigm shift for commuters heading into Jersey City and Manhattan each morning, as the inbound lanes will be closed for the entire two years. The closures begin Saturday, but the first genuine test will come next Monday morning, on a day when the inbound Pulaski would normally carry about 10,000 cars between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Transit officials weren’t sugarcoating the potential impact.

“Getting people to get out of their cars is always tough to predict,” Transportation Commissioner James Simpson said. “We’re trying to let people know: Stay away from the Pulaski Skyway or sit in traffic.”

In hopes of persuading people to take public transportation, New Jersey Transit and PATH are augmenting service. NJ Transit is running additional trains or adding seating capacity on its Morris & Essex, Raritan Valley and North Jersey Coast lines and is adding new express bus service along Route 22 from Watchung to Newark Penn Station. PATH will run trains more frequently from Newark in the mornings.

Those who insist on driving will find a highway shoulder turned into an extra travel lane on the New Jersey Turnpike’s Newark Bay extension toward Jersey City. New traffic signal technology on Routes 1 & 9 should reduce congestion, according to the department.

In Jersey City, which figures to bear the brunt of the spillover from the lane closures, Mayor Steven Fulop said 51 additional police officers, paid for by the DOT, will be deployed at key intersections and some streets will be blocked and left turns disallowed on others, with the goal of keeping commuters on major streets.

“‘Ready’ is a relative term,” Fulop said Monday. “We’re as ready as we can possibly be. But it’s impossible to predict what will happen when you close a major artery. Our goal is to be nimble.”

It could all add up to a traffic nightmare anyway. A study conducted by Jose E. Ramirez-Marquez, an associate professor at Stevens Institute of Technology’s School of Systems and Enterprises, predicts that travel times could increase by at least 35 percent to 40 percent. That could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost wages, he estimated.

Transit officials were planning for the worst in the early days of the closures, but hoping that commuters would gradually begin to change their patterns once reality sank in.

“We’re expecting a few weeks of trouble out here; we have to look at it that way,” Hammer said. “But we may be pleasantly surprised.”

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