Historically the growth and development of transportation infrastructure has been critical to the evolution of society — largely due to its impact on land use. As #b#Matthew Lawson#/b#, principal planner of the Mercer County Planning Division, expresses it: “With canals, railroads, and the interstate highway system, transportation infrastructure becomes the skeleton on which land use is hung.”

Today in Mercer County the most critical issue affecting transportation infrastructure is that so little space remains for additional building.

“Under current land use zoning, we’ve built about all the places we’re going to build,” says Lawson. “This leaves open the question of how, given limited space, we are going to create an environment that fosters economic growth from the perspective of transportation.”

Lawson was scheduled to speak on the transportation infrastructure in Mercer County on Wednesday, February 23, at the Mercer County breakfast of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce at the Nassau Inn. Also speaking: #b#John Subacus#/b#, director of site services at Janssen Pharmaceutica in Hopewell. For more information, call 215-790-3707 or visit greaterphilachamber.com.

Plans to improve transportation infrastructure in Mercer County have not been lacking, but due to high costs and public resistance, some proposed changes have been either rejected or put on hold. As a result, changes often must be incremental.

One significant project is the widening of the Turnpike from exit 9 to exit 6, to create five lanes in each direction down to the junction with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It has been able to proceed because the Turnpike Authority is using toll money to make these changes and hence can avoid the complicated public process and environment review required when federal funds are used.

Although the state still puts up a few hoops — for example, widening through preserved land requires an act of the legislature — the process is not as onerous as the federal one. This widening will have some dramatic effects on central New Jersey, says Lawson — one being to relieve the traffic on Route 130.

Lawson talks about some of the highlights of transportation planning in Mercer County, including both projects rejected by the public, some in process, and others for the moment unfunded:

#b#Rejected!#/b# Large transportation projects have been rejected by the public. Many important arteries go through heavily populated areas, and the residents do not want wider roads and bridges built in their backyards. Take Route 206, a principal arterial that is “a road laid out on an Indian path that ran between the Delaware and Raritan rivers,” says Lawson.

One tight spot on 206 is the handmade, stone-arch bridge over Stony Brook. It was built in 1792 and yet it still carries heavy truck traffic. But, asks Lawson, can you imagine what people in Princeton Township would say to the idea of widening Route 206 to four lanes?

“If you look at historical transportation plans, Princeton has looked for a solution to heavy traffic on 206 for 80 years and rejected almost anything that called for more lanes or new roads,” Lawson says. Another example: In 1978 the last link of Interstate 95, which was supposed to run through Hopewell and Princeton Township and link up with Route 287 was shot down because people did not want an Interstate running through that part of the county.

#b#Baby steps#/b#. Small changes can yield significant improvements. The widening of the Scudders Mill Bridge (where I-95 crosses the Delaware River) to three lanes in each direction with shoulders, will double its capacity, while also potentially providing a lane for bus rapid transit. The bridge widening is scheduled to begin in 2012 or 2013. A related improvement will be a direct connection between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-95, which will take some of the burden off of Route 1.

Close to Princeton the first step in a project dubbed “Route 1 in a cut” is the widening of the Millstone River Bridge near Harrison Street, which allows three lanes plus shoulders in each direction that can carry a bus rapid transit system.

But the larger project to create an underpass on Route 1 at Washington Road is on hold. Because this project was based on federal funding it required a careful public process and an environmental impact statement to the tune of $5 million. Complicating matters was that a bald eagle, a protected endangered species, was nesting somewhere on the Sarnoff property.

That process is finished, but the $300 million necessary to complete the project is not available. “DOT has no hope in the current fiscal environment of paying for it, so the project is on hold,” says Lawson. And there is no other plan to fix the problem of congestion between Princeton and West Windsor.

“This is an example of the difficulty of doing a project,” says Lawson. “You go through a long planning process where so many people’s hands are on the brake to put a stop to it. You finally have an approved plan, and lo and behold where is the money to do it?”

#b#Welcome, BRT#/b#. One consequence of the Route 1 cut and Scudders Mill bridge projects could be a bus rapid transit system for Mercer County. These buses would require prepaid tickets, as do trains, thus reducing stops from an average of 40 seconds to 20; they would make fewer stops; and they would be allotted a special lane at traffic signals and be able to “queue jump” — by emitting a signal that would pre-empt the normal cycle and turn the traffic light green in the bus lane.

Because almost all buses in Mercer County are dispatched from a single Hamilton garage, transportation planners hope that it can serve as a test site for implementing this technology.

Because bus rapid transit vehicles may also run on wider inner shoulders in the Route 1 corridor, it may be possible to implement them incrementally. And in Princeton Township, there is talk of bus rapid transit vehicles coming from the north on 206 and transferring to the existing bus system at Princeton Shopping Center.

In Mercer County planners have pushed for a long-range strategic plan for bus service and are working on resolving issues such as how bus rapid transit will interact with traditional bus service; how people will transition from cars to bus rapid transit; and what routes need to be put in place. These questions are being explored in a study with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, the metro planning organization for the Philadelphia region, which oversees the distribution of federal funds for transportation projects and provides some money for regional planning.

#b#Density#/b#. The combination of a harsh economic climate, land use constraints, and residents who don’t want roads widened forces the state to make changes around the margins to make things work a little better. But if we have no more room to grow, how can we create an environment that allows for economic growth? asks Lawson.

One solution is to increase density, which is the current thrust of governments at all levels, he says. One Mercer County project is the West Windsor Transit Oriented Development. “West Windsor is moving forward on its plan to create a denser urban center around the Princeton Junction train station, with new office space, retail, and residential,” says Lawson.

He emphasizes how important new residences are for this kind of development to be successful. “The reason is that you want to build a community, not an empty office park like Metropark or Forrestal Village.” Residents provide eyes on the street to call the police if they see someone breaking into a business and become a market for the local retailers. The result is a vibrant center and a place people want to be.

Similarly, the city of Trenton wants to increase density around the Trenton Train Station — the Trenton Housing Authority is going to raze the Miller Homes housing project and convert it to a more mixed-use development.

Another Trenton project in the offing is a conversion of Route 29 from a limited-access highway back to an urban boulevard. Next to it would be a high-rise neighborhood, again with a mix of retail, residences, and office space. Given the large cost of this project, the hope is that a real estate developer will come forward who can invest significant money in infrastructure improvements and build seven-to-ten-story buildings in expectation of profits from leasing and selling units.

In Ewing planners are looking to create denser, mixed-use development in the former General Motors site in Ewing and the former naval propulsion site next door. Both sit in the geographic center of Ewing Township, right next to the West Trenton train station. “The new administration in Ewing is making development in that property a priority now that the Obama administration has set up money for environment cleanup,” says Lawson.

The West Trenton station also has the potential to once again be part of a commuter rail service line into Manhattan. With new development, it may be viable for New Jersey Transit and SEPTA to join together and reopen the line and upgrade the West Trenton station.

Lawson grew up in Indiana, where his father was an Episcopal priest and his mother a social worker. He graduated from Indiana University in 1984 with a bachelor’s in anthropology. After beginning a doctoral program in anthropology at the University of Chicago he moved to Princeton University, where he earned a doctorate in sociology in 1996. He taught for 10 years, at Williams College, then Brandeis University, and finally at the College of New Jersey.

During his last professorial job he was teaching a class in research methods and wanted his students to get real-world experience doing community-based research. He got them involved in a project with the Trenton Housing Authority that involved tearing down a concentrated housing site, Kearney Homes, that would disperse its residents.

Because the project was getting money from the federal Housing and Urban Development program, the project’s organizers had to show that the population being dispersed would have housing and was not being forced out for purposes of gentrification. So Lawson and his students did a community survey of residents to track the effects of the proposal to tear down the concentrated public housing.

Another project with his students involved two surveys about what Ewing Township should do with the old General Motors site. “That project made the local planning community aware of my existence,” says Lawson, and when a position opened as a transportation planner, he was offered the job.

“I’m glad to be urban planner,” he says. “I’m using a lot of my sociology skills to think about complex systems and do good in the world.” —

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