New Jersey Roads - I-280

RIDOT's latest victim: I-280 falls to Square-Shield Syndrome.

I-280 is mostly a six- to eight-lane freeway that never stops moving. In Newark, it becomes a four-lane freeway that always stops moving. This has nothing to do with the Stickel Bridge, one of the last drawbridges on the Interstate Highway System, but rather, the fact that the viaduct leading up to it is only four lanes tends to cause the problems. This wasn't because of design, this was because of circumstance. The NJ 58 viaduct opened from Orange Avenue, just east of current Exit 13, eastward in 1949 as NJ 25A, across the Stickel Bridge and down to Harrison St. at current Exit 16. It then became NJ 58 in 1953, and briefly had a sister route named NJ 158 (a converted railroad drawbridge to the south that was then torn down). I-280 didn't come tearing through Essex County (and I do mean through in the case of Orange/East Orange) until 1971, and between the historic Old North Church (photo at right) and the New Jersey Transit railroad tracks, there was simply no room to expand 58 or bring it up to date. The only piece of NJ 58 that hasn't been entirely coopted by I-280 (and even the curb on 280 is original) is a tiny stub over the railroad tracks at the very western end of Orange Avenue, and I do link to photos of that stub below. That history explains why the highway has no shoulders, 500-foot weave areas, unsigned merges, and stop signs on entrance ramps. It also explains why most of the Newark-side ramps are EB on/WB off - the viaduct was really only intended for cross-river traffic, not cross-town.

Chief among these interchanges in notoriety is the butterfly interchange (Exit 15) at NJ 21. These two major regional highways are only 5/8 linked, and the only ramp to the west (I-280 EB to NJ 21 SB) had to be squeezed in between the drawbridge approach and the railroad tracks. To go north on 21, I-280 EB traffic must either use Exit 14 and local Newark streets, or Exit 16 to Harrison Ave. (CR 508), turn around and head west, and then turn north back under I-280. By the way, Harrison Ave. is the lifeblood of urban Harrison, so don't even think about that maneuver during the daytime. The other fun part of the interchange is that the ramps that do exist would barely be standard from your driveway. Heading westbound, you can't see the exit from the east side of the Stickel Bridge, but already signs tell you the right lane is Exit Only. This means that approximately half of New Jersey is in the right lane trying to merge left, and the other half is trying to stop them. When you cross the bridge, you are instantly off the highway. Within literally dozens of feet, you have to make the choice between 280 and 21, and then between 21 North and 21 South, and then between 21 South and Broad Street. If you choose 21 North and are somehow able to negotiate the ramp (usually made possible by the experience of missing it several times), you do a full 360-degree reverse loop under the highway at a maximum speed of about 10 MPH, then turn 90 more degrees to a stop sign at the right lane of busy NJ 21. By the way, when the light turns red at the I-280 EB/WB offramp at 21 South, the lanes of 21 North don't stop. Coming from 21 is also fun - southbound, you turn sharp right underneath I-280, between the freeway and the Exit 15 WB offramp (with very little advance warning of where your ramp actually is), then you quickly loop 180 degrees left, come up a sharp incline, and you get a third lane! Compared to the rest of the interchange, that added lane is a true luxury. The problem is, coming from 21 North, traffic does one of those 450-degree loops - on the outside of the other 450-degree ramp from I-280 West - turns around the last 180 degrees in about 200 feet (I am not making this up - the radius is less than some street corners), and then comes to - SURPRISE! - a STOP sign at an Interstate highway. And that stop sign is within 50 feet of the added third lane, so just because traffic from 21 South doesn't have to compete with I-280 East traffic doesn't mean it has no worries at all. (By the way, there is so much traffic for Exit 16 to Harrison - some of it for the missing pieces of this interchange - that it usually backs traffic up all the way past Exit 13 onto the five-lane section of I-280 East. So, really, no one is safe trying to merge into that highway.)

Left: Walnut St. NB, Essex CR 607.



Old NJ 58 stub

Exit 12B, the I-280/Garden State Pkwy. interchange

As a side note, even as the new NJ 21 interchange advances through the planning process, such that all traffic will actually be able to use Exit 15 - safely! - instead of local streets, the Stickel Bridge is also being studied for replacement, which it will soon need. Of course, any new bridge would require ramps to be relocated once again, and of course since the new bridge would be much higher, the ramps would have to come down a considerable distance to the ground.

I-280's eastern end, the NJ Turnpike (I-95)
I-280's western end and parent, I-80
I-280 on Steve Anderson's
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