Building it

PrintTake a Detour . . . to the Meadowlands

Where the Turnpike and Phragmites Meet, and the Environment Suffers


Did you know that Turnpike construction caused a plant to grow?

When the Turnpike pushed through New Jersey’s Meadowlands—swampy lowlands just west of Manhattan—it cut off the tidal flow in some of its creeks and rivers. As a consequence, whole areas dried out. Then Phragmites, a plant that grows in disturbed areas, invaded and crowded out more native vegetation.

The episode exemplified the way Turnpike construction—as any highway construction does—affected the environment, part of the consequences of accepting highways and cars as an inevitable part of American life. As the New Jersey Turnpike rose, it also separated wildlife from its habitat. And once up and running, more and more cars on its smooth asphalt lanes led to more pollution from emissions and from airborne particles (like asbestos from brake linings, shed by passing vehicles).

Some things have changed since the 1950s. The ecology movement of the 1970s led Americans to become increasingly aware of the need for environmental protection. Over the years, that increased awareness has led to some changes. For example, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority has joined wildlife protection efforts; it installs snow fence along stretches of the Meadowlands to prevent Diamond-back terrapins (turtles that only live in salt marshes) from trying to cross the busy, treacherous highway.