ATLANTIC CITY — From not enough workers to not enough roads to a shortage of public trains and buses, South Jersey is in need of major infrastructure upgrades if it is to compete in the modern economy, local state legislators said Friday.
State Sens. Michael Testa and Vince Polistina and others discussed the issue during the Southern New Jersey Development Council’s 40th annual Sound Off for South Jersey Legislative Conference on Friday at Resorts Casino Hotel.
Two panels including different groups of lawmakers, all from South Jersey, said the region’s challenges are diversifying the economy while still supporting the tourism industry, adding roads for safety and convenience, and adding infrastructure to make the area safer and more people transportable, especially in rural areas.
Testa, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said his district needs a completed Route 55. Built in the 1960s and ‘70s, the state highway was originally designed to lead into Cape May County. However, environmental issues kept the road from being built to its full length. The 40-mile highway is four lanes through Cumberland and Gloucester counties but shrinks back to a two-lane state highway when it turns into Route 47 near Cumberland County’s border with Cape May County. For years, lawmakers have pressed for the highway to be extended to the Jersey Shore through Cape May County, with little to show for it.
With a district vulnerable to hazardous weather and few evacuation routes, the need for a longer Route 55 is a safety matter, Testa said.
Cape May County is in the top five most dangerous counties in the U.S. to evacuate, he said.
“This is a very real public safety issue,” Testa said. “Right now, our evacuation routes are Route 9 and the Garden State Parkway. They run parallel to the ocean.”
Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, who joined Testa on a panel, said his district needs improved public transportation options, including rail service between Glassboro, Gloucester County, and Camden.
He said having public transportation access readily available is important to the people he represents.
“We need to have greater infrastructure in southern New Jersey so we can move people to where their jobs are and we can attract businesses to South Jersey,” said Singleton.
A second panel took aim at how the current economy and labor market are affecting legislators’ districts.
Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer, R-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, said she’s seen an economy that’s “OK,” while Assemblyman Bill Moen, D-Camden, Gloucester, said he’s seen “growth” where he is.
Polistina, R-Atlantic, said the Atlantic City area is managing to handle challenges caused by record inflation, but that supply chain issues, including the supply of human labor, are prevalent. He attributed the depleted workforce to the COVID-19 pandemic, from which many businesses are still recovering.
Keeping some from the workforce, he said, are many issues, including a need for child care. But jobs are there for those who want them.
“We need to figure out how to get more people in the workforce,” Polistina said.