Along with the election of Jyotika Bahree to the West Windsor Township Council, the June 26th Council meeting saw the discussion of various road and infrastructure development plans around the West Windsor area, specifically the Washington Road-Route 1 intersection, the Clarksville Road-Rt. 571 intersection, and the Cranbury Neck Bridge.
First came the Route 1 Concept Plan Presentation of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) by Francis Guzik, the West Windsor Director of Community Development and Township Engineer.
On Route 1 itself, NJDOT plans to widen the highway to four lanes as opposed to the current three, and then have a fifth lane for turning at exits like Washington Road and Fisher Place. This plan is meant to alleviate congestion, especially in the peak rush hours. Furthermore, the Alexander Road exit will actually align with the fourth lane, making it easier for commuters.
At the Washington Road-Route 1 intersection, the NJDOT proposal hopes to expand to four lanes, and also wants to increase the area of the intersection circle on the west side to correspond with the east side, along with metering signals at the extensions. Importantly, the plan involves no changes at the nearby historical Princeton Baptist Church.
Many members of the public were worried about this part of the plan, especially in regard to bicycle and pedestrian safety. DJ Varner of 13 Amherst Way, an avid biker on Washington road said that “stopping the traffic in the circle seems quite risky to me, given that I’m a bicycler and that bikes go through the circle quite often.”
Curtis Hoberman of 175 Washington Road also added onto that message. “I want to encourage that we continue to be sensitive to pedestrian safety, and continued bicycle safety. I hope this new plan has pedestrian and bicycle connections on the Millstone Bridge to the Medical Center,” Hoberman said.
The members of Council seemed to agree with the public, and began to scrutinize the rest of the plan in terms of safety for residents.
The plans also proposes the creation of a jughandle at the Fisher Place turn along with a designated right turn lane, which will be significantly larger than the area for the turn currently there, due to the rate of travel on Route 1. Council member Ayesha Hamilton asked about the effects of the extra traffic on Fisher Place residents, however Guzik noted that they had not yet discussed with the residents of Fisher Place, but noted that “Fisher Place is, unfortunately for the residents, used as a through street. To try to stop that or prohibit that without more changes at Washington Road will cause significant problems at Washington.”
Lawrence Cohen, a resident of 233 Fisher Place since 1994, commented on the reckless nature of drivers at the road. “Fischer Place remains a cut-through street. It’s rated as a 25 mph road, but everyone races to get to the green light,’ Cohen said.
Council member Hemant Marathe further questioned the need for a jughandle at Fisher Place and asked for a timeline, however Guzik was not able to provide a set timeline. Marathe was relieved to know that no West Windsor taxpayer money would directly go towards these changes.
At Harrison Street, NJDOT hopes to streamline the operation of the traffic signal. Currently, there are different phases for the traffic lights, but the new plan will prohibit a left turn from Harrison Street, and instead create a new jughandle. Council president Allison Miller asked whether NJDOT had considered the safety of the cars merging in and out of Route 1, and Guzik replied that they had gone over the safety issues.
At the crossing over Millstone River, the surplus shoulder area will become a fourth lane, thus also alleviating traffic at peak hours.
Council member Linda Geevers asked about the overall effect on West Windsor residents, and Guzik noted that there may be some acquisition of property and that these changes are to be discussed with the landowners, especially Princeton University, who has been engaged in the conversation regarding the changes since the beginning of the process.
Hamilton had some reservations about the plan at first, but was glad to see discussion between NJDOT and the township residents. “My concern was simply to make sure that our West Windsor neighbourhoods on Route 1 were not negatively impacted. It feels like in general, (NJDOT) has managed to keep the protections that those neighbourhoods needed,” she said.
Mayor Hsueh commented on the historic need for development at Route 1. “We’ve been working to get a change for 70 years regarding US Highway 1. This is finally a time where we can get a consensus and all the entities are in agreement,” Hsueh said.
Overall, Miller believed that “the changes to Route 1 will be an improvement over what there is now. I would like to make sure that there are some improvements for bicycles and pedestrians, but I understand that there is limited funding.”
Geevers also believes that, while the changes are not perfect, they will serve as “a band-aid. There’s an awful lot of traffic right now, traffic back ups in West Windsor and on Route 1, and the entire area is still growing, especially with the future affordable housing obligations. So we need to be proactive in getting the traffic to move through our area.”
This is not a final solution, however the Council passed the resolution, with an added amendment and a letter focusing on the need for bicycle and pedestrian safety in any changes. The body and Hsueh also agreed that they would like to see more public meetings between DOT representatives and West Windsor residents.
The next item on the agenda was the discussion of the Cranbury Road Bridge reconstruction and traffic mitigation by Gregory Sandusky, George Fallot, and Jeffrey Lamoreaux, various county engineers. The reconstruction of the bridge was already finalized and estimated to cost around $4 million, however the presentation allowed the Council to understand the ramifications of the reconstruction process on their residents. “We’re concerned for our constituents’ convenience, and we want to know why they were rebuilding and we wanted them to talk us,” Miller said.
The bridge replacement is scheduled to commence in August of 2017, due to warm water fish restrictions in early summer. Due to the existing width of the bridge, it cannot be rebuilt in sections, so the bridge will be closed all day for approximately 270 days, with workers rebuilding an average of 10 hours a day. For every day delayed, there is an extra $5,000 penalty paid to the County.
Marathe expressed his discontent at the amount of time the bridge renewal will take. “I’m concerned as to why it is taking so many days to fix that bridge. It’s a very important artery in West Windsor, and it’s going to inconvenience a lot of people. I hope county will work as fast as they can, and finish the bridge much sooner than what they are stating. I have not yet received a satisfactory answer as to why it’s going to take that long,” he said.
Currently, the bridge is functionally obsolete. It has a functional rating of 48.2 out of a 100, which is lower than the minimum standard of 50. The bridge replacement is also a part of a larger county-wide movement to improve infrastructure and assure that the 689 bridges in the county are safe for travel, through checkups once every two years. In fact, since 2006, 70 bridges in Mercer county have already been improved or rebuilt.
In terms of design, the new bridge will only have one pier in the water, greater curb-to-curb length, an unlimited loading level, and most importantly, sidewalks on either side. Though the sidewalk is only on the bridge and not either sides of the road, Miller sees this as a first step to a larger goal. “This gives West Windsor maximum flexibility in putting sidewalks on Cranbury Road, which is an important goal. It’s an important multi-phase project, and the County is being helpful by putting sidewalks on both sides, so that our project can fit in,” Miller said.
Though Marathe pondered whether it is truly necessary to change the bridge now, the engineers made it clear that the project was going to begin in August regardless of the Council’s views, and began accepting bids on June 27th. Hamilton is also on board, but is still “not entirely convinced why the bridge change is happening.”
Overall, Mayor Hsueh was happy with the Cranbury Neck Bridge rebuilding in the larger sense of improving West Windsor infrastructure. “I think that is something that has to be done, and this is something that I’m also very proud of. In my sixteen years of work with the state and the county, I’ve been making sure that the infrastructure in West Windsor will be brought up to date. This is something I’ve wanted to do,” Hsueh said. He then mentioned that four years ago, the bridge on Route 571 near McCaffrey’s was also upgraded.
Lastly, the Council discussed the proposed changes to the intersection of Route 571 and Clarksville Road near High School South, an issue that has become urgent due to the upcoming changes at the Cranbury Road bridge. The Council had heard the proposal before, but at the last meeting, they had questioned the a.m./p.m. peak hour congestion, pedestrian safety, and the conversion of the west-bound Route 571 left lane to a left turn only lane.
The proposed alternative was a lane reconfiguration and re-striping on Route 571, the addition of left turn green arrows on all four parts of the intersection, and an all-pedestrian phase for safety while crossing the road. Regarding the left turn lane from Route 571 going towards High School South, the engineers noted that they will install a sign at North Mill Road indicating that the left lane will become a left turn lane. They also noted the the 571 left turns will be aligned to improve motorist safety, and that all left turn lights will be responsive, not pretimed.
After collecting data, the engineers predicted that the seconds spent at the intersection during the a.m. peak hours will decrease from 160 to 143, and 88 to 63 with the p.m. peak hours. With a temporary bridge closure, these seconds will become 271 to 250 for the a.m. peak hours and 290 to 116 for the p.m. peak hours.
The most important change was the all-pedestrian phase, a button on all four sides of the intersection that would stop all traffic and allow pedestrians to cross safely. The idea for this phase came with the realization that the current button was broken, and the need to keep all pedestrians safe.
Miller was “very pleased by the county’s decision to have an all-pedestrian phase at 571 and Clarksville. If they can add a right turn arrow, so that they can have no right on red with the pedestrian phase is activated, I think you will have a truly impressive increase in safety.”
“Pedestrians at that intersection are high school students, and their safety is very important,” she added.
Marathe, however, has concerns about the changes at the intersection as the engineers are “assuming how the traffic will change once the bridge on Cranbury Road is closed. My personal thinking is that their assumptions may not be exactly accurate, so I am very much concerned about the proper changes on Route 571.”
Hamilton also shares Marathe’s concern regarding the actual change in traffic, and is worried that some of the traffic might spill onto Hendrickson Drive. “We’ve heard some mixed signals on where the traffic from the Cranbury Bridge closure will actually go, and I’ve spoken with people that don’t necessarily think it’s all going to flow out onto Clarksville and 571,” she said.
However, she understands the overall need for changes and thanks the county for their cooperation during the changes. “Mercer County was absolutely willing to listen to our concerns. The (engineers) went back and made changes regarding the intersection. They added the all-pedestrian phase, which will make a huge difference for pedestrians and cyclists. They are certainly considering our needs and making adjustments whenever possible,” Hamilton said.
Akhila Madhavan of 98 Princeton-Hightstown Road focused on this need for safety. “I walk my dog every morning and evening. Every day. And every day, the cars are a risk. I find it shocking that there is so much discussion for cars that travel an extra 17 seconds, but not for the residents,” Madhavan said.
After various questions from the public regarding private property, the engineers clarified that the current version of the plan involves no widening of the road, but only a restriping of the lanes.
As the Council continues to work through the various road development plans, some of the members have some changes in mind for the future. Though Geevers pushed for a largely open and transparent process, Hamilton believes that they could do a better job. “My sense is, I hope whoever our next mayor is, and even this current mayor, will do a better job of including council in the decision making process. I don’t necessarily love being presented with a plan (...) and basically being asked to sign off on it. I think we’re stronger with a more collaborative approach,” Hamilton said.
Along with these major changes, the Council has decided to put a temporary traffic light on the intersection of Clarksville and Cranbury Road, though the discussion of a light at the Cranbury-Millstone intersection was tabled.
The next West Windsor Township Council meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on July 10th at 271 Clarksville Road.
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