The New Jersey Turnpike Authority acknowledged last week it has removed flags from highway overpasses — a move that's upset veterans groups and at least one police union in the days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Robbinsville PBA. Local 344 said in a Facebook post Sunday it had recently purchased more than a dozen flags to replace ones that had gone missing or become tattered on the overpasses covering the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 195.

"The amount of support we received via social media and throughout town was incredible, and our post (about replacing flags) reached nearly 8,000 viewers," the PBA wrote. "The reason we decided to replace the flags was to continue the tradition of honoring our veterans and those lost in service for our country. American flags have been flown on overpasses throughout the state and throughout the nation since 9/11."

But the PBA said it instead learned the Turnpike Authority has been removing flags, replacing them with signs regarding an administrative code about advertisements or improper material posted as road signage.

"We cannot understand why the NJTPA. has suddenly decided to abandon a tradition of patriotism and respect for our veterans. It is not known what happened to the brand new flags that we put up, but we truly hope they were respectfully disposed of, if not displayed elsewhere," the PBA wrote.

Its concerns echo those of veterans quoted by News 12 late last month, when the station reported a flag had been taken down from the Woodbridge Avenue overpass of the Turnpike. It cited a veterans group that had been caring for flags on the overpass for 20 years.

"They were all patriotic, pro- law enforcement, first resonders, American flags, all of the military branches — things like that," Mark Tolley told the station. He said the group had received complaints about one pro-law enforcement flag, but the group replaced that one a few weeks ago.

Tolley told News 12 that after being told the state DOT would remove the flags as they'd become a "distraction," his group decided to take down its flags on its own.

The Turnpike Authority, in a Facebook comment replying to users who questioned the flags' removal last week said it "appreciates and applauds patriotism," but it couldn't guarantee proper care for unauthorized flags.

"We try to express patriotism ourselves every day by maintaining dozens of American flags at properties in our right of way — office buildings, toll plazas, service areas, maintenance facilities, State Police buildings, warehouses. Those flags are treated with the utmost respect by Turnpike Authority personnel," the authority wrote. "They are flown on suitable staffs. They are illuminated at night. They are lowered to half-staff when the state is in mourning. They are removed, properly destroyed, and promptly replaced when they become faded or worn and are no longer suitable symbols of our national ideals."

The authority said it was its "long-standing policy" to prohibit flags, signs or banners by private parties on authority property.

"While we appreciate the desire of some New Jersey residents to express their patriotism in these turbulent times by displaying flags on Turnpike and Parkway overpasses, Turnpike Authority regulations do not allow it, and for good reason," it wrote. "The Turnpike and Parkway run through more than 100 municipalities and include more than 1,100 bridges and other structures. The NJTA cannot adequately monitor flags mounted by private citizens to make sure they are safely and securely hung, properly displayed, and respectfully maintained."

It continued: While we hope that everyone who wants to display the American flag finds a suitable location to do so, we believe that limiting the flags displayed on Turnpike Authority property to ones hung and maintained by Turnpike Authority staff is the best way to assure that all flags in the Turnpike and Parkway right of way are treated with the respect they deserve"

It wasn't immediately clear from the Turnpike Authority's statement how often it has removed flags in the past, or whether any particular incident or direction prompted it to remove some recently. A call Monday the Turnpike Authority seeking comment has not yet been returned. State offices were closed for the Labor Day holiday.

The Robbinsville PBA said the flags had been firmly secured, and it intended to continue maintaining them

"They did not impede traffic and did not obstruct visibility for passing motorists. The placement of the flags was done in the same manner that has been done for nearly 20 years," the PBA wrote.

The PBA Local's president, Michael Slininger, said in the post he had written to the Turnpike Authority director seeking "a reason for the unexplained action soon."

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