Only a few months after scrapping an experiment that closed two major jughandles on Route 1 in West Windsor, the state Department of Transportation has unveiled a new concept it hopes will improve traffic flow along that stretch of highway.
The new proposal, estimated to cost $35 million, would also eliminate the jughandles at Washington Road and at Harrison Street — the same ones that were closed for about two months last year before DOT Commissioner James Simpson ended the “pilot program” about halfway through due to numerous complaints from public officials and from residents living near the jughandle closures.
Other changes proposed by the concept are:
• Widening the highway to four lanes in each direction.
• Eliminating the jughandle and light at Fisher Place.
• The construction of a new traffic signal on the highway halfway between Washington Road and Harrison Street.
• The construction of new jughandles in both directions feeding into the new intersection.
• A circular reverse jughandle on Route 1 South at Washington Road on the now-vacant Exxon gas station property.
The highway would be widened between the Dinky railroad bridge just north of Alexander Road and the bridge over the Millstone River near Harrison Street. In order to cause minimal disruption to existing properties — such as the historic Princeton Baptist Church — the highway would be shifted slightly west at Washington Road, with the majority of the widening occurring on land owned by Princeton University on the southbound side of the highway.
The highway would also be shifted to the east between Fisher Place and Harrison Street. In this case the majority of the widening would take place on the Princeton University-owned portion of the Sarnoff property that fronts on Route 1 north.
The concept plan was presented by the DOT to officials from Lawrence, Plainsboro, Princeton, West Windsor, Princeton University, and the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro in early February.
DOT spokesman Joseph Dee said that the state plans to obtain input from all affected parties before moving forward on any highway improvements. “This is not a plan. A plan is something that is being designed and built,” Dee said. “This is a concept. This is the beginning of a conversation.”
Both Princeton and West Windsor have scheduled meetings to solicit feedback from the public on Monday, February 25. The West Windsor meeting, hosted by Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, will be held at 10 a.m. at the West Windsor municipal building in meeting room A. The Princeton meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. at in municipal building Room A.
“We’re about to hear from average people who are using Route 1 on a daily basis and who live in the area that might be affected by the changes,” Hsueh said. “At the end of the day, we have to organize all of these comments and present them to the DOT as the general reaction.”
“The commissioner has promised to work with the community on other solutions for congestion along that Route 1 corridor in West Windsor,” Dee said. “He made that commitment back when he pulled the plug on the ‘no left turn’ trial.”
The pilot program, which closed jughandles and disallowed left turns at the Washington Road and Harrison Street, started last August 6 and was intended to run for 12 weeks. The program would have been made permanent if the state determined that the jughandle closures didn’t cause significant traffic problems.
But the program was ended early by Simpson. According to the commissioner, though the closures improved traffic flow on the highway, there were unintended consequences. Motorists heading into Princeton were using streets and driveways in the Penns Neck neighborhood surrounding the closures to make U-turns so they could drive into town.
According to Dee, the state plans to examine the results of the pilot program and take in feedback from local officials while refining the new Route 1 concept.
Eric Payne, a Washington Road resident who was a vocal critic of last year’s pilot program, expressed concerns about the new proposal. “From what I can see the new plan looks like a modified version of the last failed experiment,” said Payne. “It’s the exact same scenario as the last experiment with closer U-turns if traveling on Route 1 as opposed to using Alexander or Scudders Mill, with the addition of a new light. If they really wanted to improve the flow of traffic on Route 1 they would be removing lights, not adding them.”
“Adding a new light will only delay traffic regardless of how many lanes there are on Route 1,” said Payne. “I studied traffic flow and design for four years, and any additional stop causes a ripple effect, which will result in a traffic jam. But then again, a five-year-old understands a new traffic light will result in delays.”
One question that remains to be answered is whether the previous plan for that stretch of highway is now being abandoned by the state in favor of this new concept.
That plan — the result of a two-year environmental impact statement process conducted by Rutgers University — involved numerous government officials, residents, and representatives from environmental and conservation organizations.
The plan called for Route 1 to be depressed below grade in an underpass at Washington Road, the construction of a new overpass near Harrison Street, and the Vaughn Drive connector — a road through the Princeton Junction train station that would link Alexander and Washington roads.
When the plan was proposed in 2004, the DOT estimated the cost to be between $65 million and $120 million. Since then the estimated price tag has skyrocketed and insiders say that the plan is too costly to ever be constructed.
One proponent of the depressed Route 1 under Washington Road is Alain Kornhauser, professor of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University, who bristles at the current DOT proposal.
“What baffles me is why they just don’t want to do this right,” says Kornhauser. “What does it cost to do it right? Doing it right is a depressed Route 1 with a diamond interchange at Washington Road. Are the costs so exorbitantly high that they are forced into this interim goofy solution? What are the other alternatives, and what is so bad about the obvious one which is to make Route 1 go under Washington Road?”
Kornhauser said the DOT’s proposal “smacks of what is called Michigan lefts,” which he describes as a highway design in Michigan — “basically you cut through intersections to do a u-turn.” He said that calling a plan a Michigan left is the “ultimate insult” in the world of traffic engineering.
He also criticized the proposal for making Route 1 “zig zag when it used to be straight,” and for taking huge amounts of frontage from the Sarnoff property. “Why do they want to ruin all that frontage there with a huge jughandle?”