Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Hidden Bargains on the Garden State Parkway

Eagle-eyed travelers along the Garden State Parkway might notice subtle yet distinctive differences to the road's construction as they travel between the New York state border and Cape May. Specifically, in the area between Woodbridge and Cranford, overpasses take the form of attractive stone arches, or in the case of railroad trestles, a combination of stoneface walls and horizontal steel beam. 

Not coincidentally, these small relics of the Parkway's origins also mark a small stretch of the road that's truly a bargain. Those fourteen miles of highway are absolutely toll free.

Not just "no toll plazas, no EZPass." Absolutely free. It's a fine distinction, but hear me out.

The Parkway, like many things in New Jersey, has a complicated origin story, as I was reminded recently when researching a 40 cent difference between the price of gas at the Colonia service areas and every other service area on the Parkway. How is this possible when the NJ Turnpike Authority (and the NJ Highway Authority before it) requires service area operators to maintain the same price for all locations on the road?

The Parkway's early stoneface elements are evident
where the road crosses the Rahway River in Cranford.
Centennial Ave crosses overhead. 
It all goes back to the birth of the Parkway in 1946, when the New Jersey Legislature authorized the State Highway Department to build what was then designated the Route 4 Parkway between Clifton and Cape May, with a spur from Woodbridge to Trenton. Nothing in the original legislation required the legislature to increase the State Highway Department's budget to build a 150-mile long road.  

Ground for the toll-free highway was broken in Clark that year, and the four lane parkway -- including a broad grassy median separating north- and southbound traffic -- began to take shape. A total of 22 miles was built in Union, Ocean and Cape May counties before funds were exhausted in 1952. 

Perhaps the mandate-without-funding method wasn't the best way to go? Governor Alfred Driscoll (namesake of the Raritan-spanning bridge) was committed to getting the highway done and the New Jersey Highway Authority (NJHA) was established in 1952 to complete the project. The NJHA was entrusted to issue voter-approved bonds as a reliable funding source for land acquisition and highway construction, rather than leaving it to the fate of annual state budget negotiations. Bond holders would be paid back with the proceeds from tolls charged at eight planned cross-highway toll plazas and a few on- and off-ramps. Once the debt was paid off, the tolls would be eliminated.*

The legislation that created the NJHA also mandated that the portions of the Parkway that had been built by the State Highway Department with funds from the state budget would be exempt from tollbooths.** Depending on how you define the term, you could say the Parkway is a freeway for that stretch. Considering there was neither a state income tax nor a sales tax at the time, the average New Jerseyan got a pretty good deal from that back in 1952, even if the average 21st century driver doesn't know the difference.

But what's that got to do with the price of gas in Colonia, you ask? 

We get a hint from NJHA brochures issued in the early days of the highway. Chock full of useful details and convenient north-to-south and south-to-north maps, the handouts list the Colonia stations' location as "State Section," indicating that they were constructed with the original part of the Parkway. Indeed, a 2017 NJ.com article notes that the stations were built on private property, though the Turnpike Authority owns the land surrounding them.

Because the gas stations aren't on Turnpike property, they're not required to follow the same pricing rules as the Bon Jovi (Cheesequake), the Houston (Vauxhall) or any of the other service areas. That's why Ivan and I got the pleasant shock of actual cheap gas on a recent drive home from Cape May. 

Whether the big price difference will stick or not, only time will tell, but it's worth keeping an eye on if your travels bring you along that stretch of the Parkway on a regular basis.

At the very least, enjoy your free ride between Cranford and Woodbridge.

*Insert cynical statement here. 

**You can read it in PL1952, chap. 16, page 91, helpfully digitized by the New Jersey State Library here.

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