DOT Commissioner Answers Questions about Route 1 Trial at Packed Princeton Forum

David Newton summed up the opinion of many Princetonians last night regarding the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s plan to cut off the Route 1 jughandles at Washington road and Harrison Street.

“The idea is cockamamie,” the head of Palmer Square Management told DOT Commissioner James Simpson and the crowd of more than 70 people who gathered at Borough Hall Wednesday to hear more about the jughandle trial, which is slated to start in March.

“We know Princeton better than you do,” said Newton, who was applauded by many in the audience. “I don’t see how you can make a decision like this without speaking to the business community in Princeton.”

Representatives from the DOT, who also met with about 40 residents in West Windsor the previous evening, did not plan to answer questions from the group as a whole, telling people they could ask questions one on one, but Newton challenged the set up as a way to control people. Simpson, a borough resident who lives on Hibben Road, then agreed to answer a few questions.

“We don’t want this to turn in to personal attacks on DOT personnel,” Simpson said, adding that he had met several times with five area mayors and other stakeholders like Princeton Healthcare and Princeton University officials over the last two years to discuss the jughandle project, which is described as a smaller scope project.

“Our modeling says this is a done deal,” Simpson said of the plan to eliminate the jughandles at Washington Road and Harrison Street. Northbound drivers would no longer be able to make a u-turn or a left in to Princeton using the jughandles. They would need to turn off at Alexander Road or drive up to Scudders Mill Road and double back.

The trial is scheduled to start in mid-March and run for 8 to 12 weeks.

“If the trial is  a complete disaster we will pull the plug,” Simpson said. “But you’ve got to give it a chance.”

Rick Hammer, assistant DOT commissioner for capital program management, said Route 1 is congested and has been for years and the jughandles are too small to handle the traffic on then, leading to back ups on Route 1.

“It’s gotten to the point where we are losing capacity,” he said. “Because of the jughandles, we basically lose one lane during peak hours. With the new hospital comes more traffic and emergency personnel on the highway.”

Some residents asked why the state can’t come up with other alternatives to fix the problem. A controversial proposal studied for years to create a bypass just south of Harrison Street and construct a new, two-lane county roadway to connect the interchange with the surrounding roadway network would cost an estimated $100 million.

“There is no funding for the Penns Neck EIS,” Simpson said, adding that good government means adding capacity to existing highways where possible. Instead of spending billions of dollars the state does not have on road improvements, Simpson said there are smart, technical ways to make a lot of fixes to existing roads at a low cost. “If I weren’t doing this, I wouldn’t be doing my job,” he said.

Hammer said the first day of the trial, drivers may be confused, and the changes will take a few days to settle in. People will adjust and plan alternate routes. DOT officials said Alexander Road already backs up during rush hour, so they don’t think a lot of extra traffic will be added to that road because people will chose other alternatives altogether like Princeton Pike or Route 206, officials said.

“Sometimes the changes might add three minutes extra for the drive for one or two people,” Simpson said of the jughandle plan. “But it will be saving three minutes for one or two thousand people. You need to look at the totality of the project.”

Asked by Borough Councilwoman Jo Butler how the DOT will measure the local impact of the trial, Simpson said the DOT will closely monitor traffic counts and compare the data with pre-trial base data. Simpson expressed optimism that the jughandle project will not negatively affect local residents.

“We will be taking all kinds of data. We will take more data after the hospital opens to compare,” Simpson said. “We are hoping you are not going to notice anything.”