Officials at the New Jersey Department of Transportation have blocked the Princeton Council’s plans to narrow the entrance to Witherspoon Street to 13.5 feet, at least if the municipality wants state funding for the project. The entrance must be at least 22 feet wide, state officials said.
The Princeton Council held a special meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Friday to receive an update from Municipal Engineer Deanna Stockton about the design of the intersection of Nassau Street and Witherspoon Street. Nassau Street is a state road, and the NJDOT has jurisdiction over the street and anything that impacts traffic on the street.
Back in March of 2021, the council passed a resolution for changes to Witherspoon Street that included the replacement of the traffic signal at the intersection of Witherspoon and Nassau and a 25-foot-wide entrance to Witherspoon Street. In June of 2021, the council changed the design to 13.5 feet wide. On September 23, Princeton staff members found out that NJDOT officials would not sign off on the 13.5-foot entrance, and instead wanted the entrance to be 22 feet wide so that trucks can make turns from Nassau Street onto Witherspoon Street. Otherwise, Princeton would lose about $1 million in state funding for the project. Previously officials believed the state was on board with the narrower road design.
“The rationale behind the 22-foot entrance is that it does allow all truck movements, and the DOT has indicated to us that to reduce it to anything lower than 22 feet quite possibly will not be approved because it would reduce truck access,” Stockton said. “We came to council, if you recall, on the 27th of September, to get additional support for our 13 and a half foot design, not understanding that the DOT was holding firm on the 22-foot wide entrance. We actually got a clarification on the 30th, three days after the council meeting, that it is a 22-foot wide proposal. They would not consider the 13 and a half foot proposal. So that’s why we’re back here today is to have this discussion, so that you understand what is now on the table.”
Stockton also noted that the kiosk on Nassau Street near the intersection of Witherspoon Street will likely remain. The state’s plan was to remove it and replace it with a large traffic controller box. Stockton said the NJDOT was able to reduce the size of the traffic controller box. It will be similar to the one at the intersection of Nassau Street and Bayard Lane. State officials are working with PSE&G to locate the controller box on the university side of Nassau Street.
Council members were unclear at the Friday meeting about what they were approving, since the state is dictating how wide the entrance has to be. “I’m not sure I understand that we have a choice. If this is what the DOT is saying, and they control Nassau Street, I’m missing something here,” Councilwoman Eve Niedergang said. “If they say it has to be 22 feet and that’s it, end of story, then our only decision is on the bollards, or what did I miss?”
“You got it Eve, that’s it. But it’s nicer to pretend like there’s a decision, so we’re all pretending there’s a decision,” Councilwoman Mia Sacks said.
“Isn’t our decision as to whether we want to let the DOT construct the intersection as they’re willing to do, on their dime, and if we turn it down, we could always go back to them and say, we’ll build it on our dime but we’re going to build it different, is that the real decision point here?” Mayor Mark Freda said.
“But it’s their road,” Niedergang said.
Stockton said the state is willing to replace the traffic signal and improve the intersection because of known pedestrian safety issues at the intersection and is willing to fund the work. Princeton officials could opt to try to address safety issues at the intersection without state support, but the town would still have to apply to the NJDOT for permits to make improvements, and any local proposals could still be rejected by the state.
Bollards, also known as posts, will be used along Witherspoon Street to direct vehicles and prevent vehicles from entering certain areas.
Councilman David Cohen asked where bollards would be permitted to be installed on Witherspoon Street. “Obviously if we put them up right by Nassau Street, then the trucks still can’t turn,” he said, asking if Stockton has a diagram of the potential design and location of bollards that would direct people on Witherspoon Street. Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros said it would be cool if the bollards could be electronic bollards that offer flexibility. Stockton said staff members are still working out the bollard design and locations. On Monday night, officials will also be discussing a presentation by city planner and urban designer Jeff Speck, who visited Princeton recently and gave business owners and officials feedback about the Witherspoon Street proposal. Speck is the author of the book “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.”
Niedergang then asked staff members if they are sure they have an agreement with the NJDOT. “We thought we had their agreement to something for a period of quite some time, and now all of a sudden we’re finding out, no we didn’t have an agreement,” Niedergang said. “So how confident are we that we now really have an agreement, and if we agree to this, that this is it and they’re not going to come back and say what we really meant was…”
Jim Purcell, the town’s land-use engineer, said the municipality has the NJDOT’s terms for the street width in writing, in a letter. The town had nothing in writing from the NJDOT approving 13.5 feet for the width of the entrance of Witherspoon Street. Local officials said a consultant for the state had been working on the 13.5-foot design the council wanted, though.
Resident Tineke Theo of the municipal pedestrian and bicycle advisory committee suggested that the town put bollards at the entrance to Witherspoon Street so that the entrance is 13.5 feet wide, even if the road is 22 feet wide. She also said a third bollard could be placed in the middle of the street to close off the street to create a pedestrian plaza. “If you make the street pedestrian, except for the time of deliveries, then maybe you only need one set of bollards at the beginning of the street, and you don’t need bollards inside the street,” Theo said.
Lisa Serieyssol of the pedestrian and bike committee said Theo’s point about the use of bollards at the top of Witherspoon Street could be an interesting technique to control the speed of drivers entering the rest of Weatherspoon Street.
Freda said the town couldn’t just work around the NJDOT’s plans like that. “We as a town, and especially our engineering staff, could not misrepresent to DOT what’s going to be done, plus DOT is going to do the work,” he said. “So I don’t know that we could agree to take their money to build an intersection, and then do something that short circuits what they just built. I think that would be a large dilemma, mess, and legal problem. DOT would definitely not sit back and accept that if we were to change the intent of the intersection.”
The council will hold a work session at 7 p.m. on Monday night, Oct. 11 via Zoom to discuss design elements of Witherspoon Street in the wake of Speck’s presentations and recommendations.