Most of the discussion during the hearing Thursday was centered on funding construction of a $15 million overpass on Route 539, which bisects Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Ocean County, in order to allow large convoys of military vehicles to safely and easily travel beneath the public highway from one side of the sprawling military installation to the other.
TRENTON — State Sen. Vin Gopal knows all too well the downsides of when a federal base closure decision goes the wrong way.
Gopal’s mother was once a doctor at Fort Monmouth, but she and thousands of other New Jersey residents lost their jobs after the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided the North Jersey installation should close.
It’s one reason why Gopal, D-11th of Long Branch, has become an advocate for New Jersey to take the necessary steps now to help enhance Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and the state’s other remaining military installations in preparation of another eventual BRAC.
“I do not think Fort Monmouth had to close. I think that was a huge mistake and we’re paying for it today. I think nationally and regionally, Fort Monmouth played a huge role in our military and it still could have. I don’t want to see the same thing happen to (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst),” Gopal said Thursday following a Senate Military and Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the issue of military base closure and realignment and actions New Jersey can take to protect its five remaining military bases.
Most of the discussion during the hearing was centered on funding construction of a $15 million overpass on Route 539, which bisects Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst 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 one side of the sprawling military installation to the other.
Adding the overpass would allow the convoys to cross beneath the 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 from motorists traveling to and from the Jersey Shore, officials said.
Improving the safe access to the Lakehurst side would greatly expand the available training space on the joint base for Reserve and National Guard forces and would make the installation more attractive for locating new missions.
“There’s plenty of space on that end of the base for additional infrastructure and new missions,” said retired Col. Rich Eckstein, a leader with the Defense Enhancement Coalition, a nonprofit group of residents and business leaders that advocates for government actions to protect and enhance the joint base.
He said the elected freeholders in Burlington, Ocean and Monmouth counties have agreed to contribute equal sums to the cost of designing and constructing the overpass. Gopal and fellow Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Delran, have also promised to pursue some state funding for the project.
Singleton is widely credited with helping to organize a meeting of officials from the three counties and testified that a memorandum of understanding is being drafted that spells out the three counties’ involvement. He said he was hopeful some state funding would be added to the upcoming 2020 fiscal year budget for the project.
“The leadership of Ocean, Monmouth and Burlington counties have all worked collaboratively, especially during this budget cycle, to make sure we fight like heck to make sure it gets into this budget,” Singleton said, adding that it would show the state’s commitment to ensuring the project moves forward.
“Today we’re talking about the joint base, but we could easily be talking about Picatinny (Arsenal). We could easily be talking the (177th Fighter) Wing in Atlantic County. For us and all New Jerseyans we need to stand to make sure our military bases are secure and stay viable in our state,” the senator added.
Staffers from both U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, D-3rd of Bordentown Township, and Rep. Chris Smith, R-4th of Hamilton, attended the hearing, and Kim’s aide, Antoinette Miles, read a statement from the freshman congressman that pledged his partnership in advocating for funding for the overpass.
In his statement, Kim said inaction was not an option due the joint base’s importance both to the state’s economy, military readiness and the surrounding communities.
“Building an overpass over Route 539 isn’t just an infrastructure issue. It’s not just a military construction issue or a military readiness issue. It’s not just a public safety issue or an economic development issue. This overpass is all of those things to our community, and it’s why it’s absolutely essential we come together and find a path towards making this a reality,” Kim said.
Burlington County Freeholder Dan O’Connell also testified about the project’s importance.
“We can’t stress enough how important this is,” he said. “Right now a lot of training missions that could be conducted at the joint base ... are actually being sent out of state. These are ones that could come back and be held at the base.”
Gopal acknowledged that money is tight at all levels of government, but he too stressed that the joint base was too important to not invest state money to protect.
“Absolutely, 110 percent,” he said. “Without a doubt. It’s a no-brainer. And I’m happy to see my home county in Monmouth is engaged in this. Even though they don’t touch the area, they see the impact,” he said. “It’s truly incredible seeing all these counties. Burlington is Democratic, Monmouth is Republican, Ocean is Republican, but it’s not politics. Each of them is just doing the right thing.”