Amendment to House bill could help fund Joint Base overpass projecet
Two of South Jersey’s congressional representatives may have come up with another way to provide federal funding for a highway overpass project deemed critical for Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst’s future.
Securing funding to build an overpass on Route 539 by the joint base has become a top priority for Reps. Andy Kim, Donald Norcross and other members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation, as well as state and county lawmakers. But Friday’s amendment to a House budget bill marked one of the most promising developments to date.
The amendment authored by Kim, D-3rd of Bordentown Township, and Norcross, D-1st of Camden, directs the Department of Defense to address road safety issues at and around military installations and adds $7 million to an Army Reserve account to fund it. It was added to the House Appropriations bill for the departments of Commerce and Justice, Science, and Related Agencies by a voice vote Friday morning.
The budget bill also appropriates funding for military construction, veterans affairs, transportation and other federal agencies.
Kim and Norcross believe the amendment could provide another way to get funding for the Route 539 overpass project, also known as the Route 539 Interconnector.
The $15 million project involves constructing an overpass on the highway, which bisects the joint base in Ocean County, in order to allow large convoys of Humvees and other military vehicles to safely and easily travel beneath the public highway from the Fort Dix and McGuire sections of the joint base to the Lakehurst side without having to use both Route 70 and 539. Both highways experience significant traffic during the summer months from motorists traveling to and from the shore, and having military vehicles use the highway or drive across it is considered a safety hazard.
Also, providing easy access to the Lakehurst side of the installation would greatly expand the available training space for Reserve and National Guard forces and make the installation more attractive for new missions. The base is already New Jersey’s second-largest employer with more than 40,000 service members and civilians employed there.
In a floor speech Friday morning, Kim argued that improving road safety is important to readiness.
“If our service men and women can’t safely drive, they can’t safely train, and that puts our military at a distinct disadvantage,” Kim said, citing the overpass project.
“By building a simple overpass over Route 539 the Army Reserve would have access to more than hundreds of additional training acres. Because one third of the Army reservists live within a short drive of under four hours from the joint base, additional trainings would save us money and give them more time with their families,” Kim said.
The congressman, who serves as vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee, said the project could also allow reservists to conduct night exercises currently deemed too risky without safe access across the public highway.
“This is one example but it’s not the only one,” Kim said. “This is a chance for us to stand with our service men and women, the chance to stand for readiness, this is the chance for us to stand for safety.”
The appropriations bill still has several hurdles to clear to become law, including a likely conference between the House and Senate. But the addition of the language regarding road safety near military installations in the House bill was hailed as a good initial step to obtaining federal funding for the Route 539 project.
In a statement, Norcross, who is also a member of the Armed Services Committee, agreed the overpass project would improve military “efficacy and readiness” and should be made a priority for the federal government.
“Our service members should be able to efficiently and safely train — and civilians passing by the bases should not face undue obstacles or hazards,” Norcross said. “That’s why we’re working to move this important overpass project forward.”
The elected freeholders in Burlington, Ocean and Monmouth counties have also agreed to contribute equal sums to the cost of designing and constructing the overpass, and state Sens. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Delran, and Vin Gopal, D-11th of Long Branch, are spearheading efforts to secure some state funding.
While no money for the overpass was included in the 2020 fiscal year budget approved by the Senate and Assembly last week, Singleton has said he plans to pen a supplemental spending bill that dedicates $2 million of state transportation dollars to the project.
In addition to Kim’s amendment, the House approved adding language to the bill to prohibit military construction funds from being used in conjunction with a new round of base closings decided by a Base Realignment and Closure Commission, also known as BRAC.
The joint base was formed from the previously separate installations of Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base and Naval Air Station Lakehurst after the last BRAC in 2005, but North Jersey’s Fort Monmouth was also closed, resulting in the loss of several thousand high paying jobs there.