Before and even during World War II, traffic congestion had been steadily increasing on the main north-south highways in the state of New Jersey, most notably U.S. 1 throughout the state, but also U.S. 9 and state highway 35 as they ran south, carrying motorists between the New York City suburbs and the shore.

In 1945, the state legislature approved construction of what was initially referred to as the Highway 4 Parkway, planned to be a 164-mile route from Paramus to Cape May. Designed by Gilmore Clarke, who had earlier assisted in the design of Robert Moses’s parkways across the Hudson River in New York, the parkway would be a 4-lane limited access highway, with such cutting-edge features as a wide median and wide shoulders.

Construction began in 1946, but by 1950, only three sections of the parkway, totaling 18 miles, had been completed. The state was having trouble paying for the project out of general tax revenues.

In the intervening years, to relieve the traffic congestion on U.S. 1, the state had authorized and started construction on the New Jersey Turnpike, which was being built and would be operated by a separate authority that was paying for the turnpike by issuing bonds that would be paid off by revenues from tolls.

In 1952, the state legislature created the New Jersey Highway Authority to finance the parkway in the same manner as the Turnpike had been paid for. Bonds were issued, and construction of the newly renamed Garden State Parkway began again in July 1952. The road was effectively completed three years later, although a bridge over Great Egg Harbor wasn’t opened until 1956.

The completion of the Parkway resulted in surprisingly large backups on state highway 17 between the Parkway’s northern terminus at Paramus and the state highway’s interchange with the New York State Thruway just north of the New York border. A northern extension was hurriedly built with the cooperation of the Thruway authority, consisting of 10 miles of road in New Jersey and 2 miles in New York, and tying the Parkway directly into the Thruway at Spring Valley.

Unlike the New Jersey Turnpike, which was deliberately built for express travel to speed both intrastate and interstate traffic and therefore has very few interchanges and a ticket toll system, the Garden State Parkway was designed for both local and express travel, serving almost exclusively intrastate traffic. It was built with not only frequent interchanges, but 11 mainline toll plazas, plus plazas at certain exits and entrances. (As of 2002, all mainline plazas charge 35 cents; interchange plazas charge either 25 or 35 cents. EZPass users pay 33 cents at peak travel times, 30 cents at other times.) There are also nine service plazas along the way.

The original three sections of road that had been built between 1946 and 1950 were tied into the Parkway, but since they were paid for by general state tax revenue, they remained toll-free. They were separately operated and maintained by the New Jersey Department of Transportation until 1987, when they were sold to the Highway Authority for one dollar and the promise that tolls would never be charged on those portions of the Parkway. The weakest link involves one of the free sections, near Cape May Court House, where there are three traffic lights on that 5-mile stretch, causing traffic jams throughout the summer. (The other two free sections, near Toms River and between roughly Union and Perth Amboy, are essentially indistinguishable from the rest of the Parkway.)

Additional bonds have been issued for expansion of the Parkway, to the point that the original 4-lane parkway is now almost completely unrecognizable, especially on northern portions of the route where it has as many as 14 lanes, arranged in an express/local configuration.

Unlike the Turnpike and its consecutive exit numbers, the Parkway has its frequent exits numbered according to the nearest milepost. These are the interchanges with other major roads:

Thanks to nycroads.com, SPUI’s exit list at web.mit.edu/spui/www/freeway/gsp.html, the National Geographic Road Atlas, and my father.

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