Following road through heart of New Jersey; Turnpike is fast lane to personality of Garden State


SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Every car owner eventually meets that one road in life with a personality that must be confronted or avoided, cajoled or negotiated on a daily basis, and perhaps no road has a personality as widely known as the New Jersey Turnpike, the service entrance to New York City.

The turnpike is the fast lane to New Jersey's personality. It is everything everybody else says about New Jersey -- paved, crowded, smelly in the summer, bleak in the winter, a passage to somewhere more desirable.

When New Jersey was a dumping ground, the turnpike was its loading dock. When racial profiling was still an official state secret, the turnpike was its prime hiding place.

So it's no surprise that the Turnpike Authority's plan to put the first advertising billboards on turnpike land has caused some soul-searching. The authority rationally decided that since billboards on private land were already visible from the turnpike, why not make money by erecting its own billboards and renting them? The plan is to build eight two-sided billboards in the stretch between Elizabeth and the Vince Lombardi service area, hardly the Loire Valley to begin with.

The idea has come and gone over the years. Now that the authority is soliciting bids to build the billboards, some conservationists, public officials and drivers are objecting, in a Jersey kind of way: they see it as the turnpike resigning itself to the world's mistaken opinion of the state.

"I think a state agency should be looking to enhance an image, not detract from it," said Mayor James Cassella of East Rutherford, a town with a football team that still won't admit it's in New Jersey.

Meg Maguire, a former New Jerseyan and president of Scenic America, a Washington conservation group, said the road speaks for the state. "It's an industrial state in the north and an agricultural state in the south," she said. "If you start putting up billboards, it's a sellout state." (She said she had written to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, but the governor's picture is already on anti-smoking billboards overlooking the turnpike from private land.)

Closer to home, Barbara Sandford, the president of Scenic New Jersey, also hates billboards, but understands the turnpike's limitations. "It's doing the best it can," she said, in a tone of voice you might hear at a parent-teacher conference. "It's just engineered to get you from here to there. It's not supposed to be pretty."

Wearily, Edward Gross, the executive director of the Turnpike Authority, defends his road. "The turnpike is a highway, and it has a function," he said. "There's a lot of development around the turnpike, but it's not the doing of the turnpike."

It is a safe, vital conduit for people and goods, he pointed out, and will be enhanced by a $41 million overhaul of its rest stops.

The road has an unadorned honesty, and there's a certain majesty to the great waves of wetland grass, the maze of the Bayway refineries and the mesas of capped landfills.

"It's a vigorous, muscular, masculine aesthetic," declares Angus Kress Gillespie, a Rutgers professor of American studies.

It can grow on you. Jack Eisenberg, working the parts counter at Industrial Truck Body off Exit 13A, opposes billboards. "I'm not for anything that hurts the scenery," he said with a straight face.

But then, he's from Staten Island and knows about learning to love one's burden. "Hey, I live a mile from the Staten Island dump. There is no bigger blight."

So don't get him started about the turnpike being ugly. "Have you ever seen the Connecticut Turnpike?" he asks. "Bridgeport! This is paradise compared to that."

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