By Cheryl Hehl, Staff Writer
LINDEN — Mayor Rich Gerbounka received a very special invitation last month for himself and 40 other movers and shakers in the community. But while this busy mayor gets invitations of all kinds, receiving one from the governor was indeed special and it came with a bonus that was not expected.
The mayor makes no bones about the fact he is a supporter of Gov. Chris Christie, or that he has developed a good relationship with this Republican leader who speaks his mind and lets the chips fall where they may. In fact, Gerbounka is the first to admit Christie speaks his language.
“I’m extremely supportive of him,” Gerbounka said, confessing he is periodically in touch with the governor. Although he preferred not going into the issues they have discussed in the past, suffice it to say the governor is aware of the problems facing Linden.
Still, it was surprising, the mayor said, when he received a call from the governor’s office inviting him to breakfast at Drumthwacket, the official residence of the the governor.
“The call came out of the blue, inviting me to pick a broad spectrum of 35 to 40 people in the community to have breakfast and listen to the direction the governor would like to see the state take,” Gerbounka said, adding that he was honored to be invited.
“I was honored that Gov. Christie took the time to listen to Linden’s issues,” he added.
Although Christie does not live with his family at the Princeton mansion built in 1834, he often entertains there, as was the case when he asked Gerbounka and 40 people from Linden to join him for breakfast.
So, in the early morning hours of the day in question, the mayor, along with the contingent of people he asked to join him on this venture, took off in a bus headed for Princeton.
Gerbounka said the time spent with the governor was “relaxed and enjoyable,” with Christie being “very much the way he usually is on television.”
“He is a down to earth guy,” the mayor said, mentioning that while he is supportive of the governor, he does not always agree with everything he says.
Basically, the mayor explained, Christie “just wanted to know how he could be of help to our community.” Although there were many issues facing the city, Gerbounka knew there was one issue desperately in need of attention.
The Interstate 278 access on Route 1 and 9 has been called the “missing link” because improvements to this ill conceived juncture have been on the drawing boards for years.
Gerbounka explained that as motorists come into Linden from Elizabeth, I-287 exits onto the fast lane of Routes 1 and 9 southbound, which is extremely dangerous.
“Five people were killed at that location,” the mayor said, adding that prior to this the city had been asking for improvements to that interchange for close to 20 years.
Complicating things even more is the fact that there is no entrance to I-278 from Routes 1 and 9 southbound. The only entrance is from Routes 1 and 9 northbound and there is no exit onto Routes 1 and 9 northbound from the interstate.
Gerbounka said improvements to this deadly interchange have been needed for a long, long time and thanks to the governor, changes are coming.
Christie immediately began to work on the problem, sending a letter to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, requesting that they undertake the I-278 ramp project.
“This project will support critical corridor access improvements near the New Jersey side of the Goethals bridge. In light of the coming Goethals Bridge Modernization Program, this project takes on an additional sense of urgency,” Christie noted in his letter of July 31.
Just days after the governor sent this letter, Gerbounka confessed it was a long awaited solution to a problem that burdened the city.
“I’m very excited about the project. It’s a major improvement,” the mayor said last week. However, he is also aware that these improvements will take time. According to Steven Coleman, Port Authority media deputy director, it will take until 2018 to complete the interchange improvements and cost $100 million.
Last week the Port Authority authorized another $5.4 million for planning and engineering design. The Port Authority’s director also has been authorized to award contracts for professional, technical and advisory services associated with the planning and design work.
The project not only will improve the I-278 interchange but also improve traffic safety, local road congestion and highway vehicle traffic flow. In addition, the interchange update would improve traffic moving from Bayway Avenue in Elizabeth to and from the Goethals Bridge and New Jersey Turnpike, according to the authority’s resolution.
Gerbounka said the changes will improve Linden’s transportation grid and have a major impact on traffic safety along the Routes 1 and 9 corridor.
“It’s a pleasure to have Gov. Christie listen to the needs of the residents of the City of Linden and make things happen,” the mayor said.