Are State DOT Rockfall Projects Money Pits?: NMA E-Newsletter #630

Have you ever wondered how much it costs to mitigate rockfalls on state highways and interstates? The bigger question, perhaps, is the expense worth it?

Late last year, posted an interesting article about rockfall project expenses in the state. Even though they did not come out and say it, it seems some rockfall projects in New Jersey (and maybe other states) can be money pits. Local officials often don’t understand why the state DOT is bothering since there seems to be no significant safety issue.

A case in point is NJ Route 46 in Knowlton, (Warren County) population 3,000. In 2014, a rock fell from a jagged cliffside, landed on the road, and caused a crash. Ironically, this occurred as the NJ DOT was beginning construction on a $14.6 million rockfall project. The original 2012 project estimate was $5.55 million to blast rock from the slope and build a 30-foot high fence. By 2014, that cost had increased 164 percent.

When the project budget skyrocketed, Township Committee Member RenĂ© Mathez exclaimed, “We pointed out that there had been no accidents because of rockfall that we knew of, and there were probably better ways to do this. We pointed out that the engineering of this was going to be very expensive and an absolute eyesore. But none of that seemed to register. There was no interest in listening to us, and we felt entirely ignored during the process.”

Local NJ officials have started pushing back on these costly rockfall projects thrust on locales by the DOT. Attempts to discuss concerns about project scopes, effects on communities, and to review alternative solutions with state transportation officials are often ignored.

An investigation by The Record,, and the NJ Herald found:

  • In the past 10 years, rockfall project expenses have grown exponentially. In 2010, many mitigation projects cost around $2 million. Now, projects range from $10 to $65 million.
  • Cost increases are due, in part, to consulting firms that are charging for years of planning and research.
  • The DOT has not provided any evidence of anyone killed or injured by a rock falling on a NJ road.
  • Local involvement in the decision process is nonexistent once the DOT announces a rockfall project.

One of the most notorious of the upcoming NJ rockfall projects is a 0.30-mile stretch of Route 80 between mileposts 1.04 and 1.45 that runs through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. This area has four slopes, and due to the geometry and complexity, it has been graded as one of the highest risk highways.

The first estimate was for $6 million for nine months of work. It has now grown to a four-to-five-year project with the estimated cost of $65 million (and likely more if the project goes to the full five years). Several New Jersey state lawmakers are trying to freeze the project’s federal funding because they do not believe in the science and the data behind the project.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are also involved. In a Pike County Courier article posted in February 2020, Pennsylvania State Representative Rosemary Brown called the project a debacle. She has indicated that federal funding for the project was $200 million and would be better spent on a commuter train from Andover, NJ to Pennsylvania. Brown noted that the project “poses an economic and environmental threat to the area, not to mention the everyday impact of four to five years of roadwork will have on commuters who commute through the Water Gap for work.”

The goal of state transportation departments is to enable safe modes of travel for the public. If a rockfall occurs, it can be more expensive to clean up and repair roads after a rockfall instead of paying for mitigation costs upfront. But do all potential rockfall areas need to be mitigated? With so many other infrastructure needs, should cheaper alternatives to this kind of mitigation be prioritized in this time of extreme infrastructure funding needs?

As long as the feds are bestowing vast sums of money to state DOTs for these projects, and those transportation officials are effectively shutting out any input from local authorities and any consideration of alternative measures, many rockfall projects will continue to end up being money pits.

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