The “experiment” to close two heavily used jughandles on Route 1 has been terminated. It’s over, the state Department of Transportation says, because the department “became convinced that unintended consequences [on residents and businesses near the jughandles] could not be satisfactorily mitigated.”
No one argues that point. As hundreds of online petitioners, dozens of letter writers (see page 2 for a small sampling), and even the DOT commissioner, James Simpson, who made several visits to the affected Penns Neck neighborhood near Washington Road, could observe, the disruption of traffic was severe. On Saturday, October 13, the DOT announced its reversal.
So the “experiment” — first discussed publicly in the fall of 2010, and the subject of information hearings early this year (when many of the adverse consequences were predicted by residents) — came to an abrupt end several weeks before the planned end of the 12-week trial.
In its announcement, delivered personally to residents in the affected neighborhood by commissioner Simpson, the DOT claimed that the closing “had produced the expected improvements in traffic flow on Route 1.” That assessment, spokesman Joe Dee said later, was based on “quantitative data on traffic volumes and trip times that have been gathered prior to and during the trial.” In addition, he said, “we also heard from motorists who said they had experienced appreciable improvements.”
Not every motorist felt that way. As the chart above shows, the U.S. 1 editorial staff conducted annual traffic flow comparisons for a 20-year period from 1987 to 2007. That informal study — averaging the time it took for several different drivers to travel from Franklin Corner Road on the south to Raymond Road on the north — began when doomsday critics predicted that a trip from Trenton to New Brunswick would eventually take three hours.
That scenario never happened. In fact, as the chart illustrates, the DOT took measures that greatly increased traffic flow on Route 1, especially the opening of the Meadow and Alexander Road overpasses and the closing of the jughandle at Nassau Park. From 1998 until 2007 the average trip time (rounded off to the nearest 15 seconds) for our rush hour commuters actually decreased from 21 minutes to 19.25 minutes. And in the year 2007, the talk was of an even more dramatic improvement: The Millstone Bypass, which had been studied thoroughly at public roundtables earlier in the decade and which would replace the Harrison Street jughandle with a grade separated overpass that would connect via a frontage road to Washington Road.
But those projects lost their funding, and are now deep on the back burner at DOT.
This year’s experiment, we believed, deserved another few timed runs up and down Route 1. We made several runs on clear days in February, as the DOT was still considering the jughandle experiment. Then in August, after the closing and again in the second week in October, when traffic might better compare to our 20-year survey, we conducted more runs. We did see one glimmer of improvement: The northbound commuting time in the morning rush hour was a breeze, averaging just 13.5 minutes. But the overall time after the jughandles were closed was 18.75 minutes, not dramatically different than it had been in the last eight or nine years of our survey.
What was dramatically different, of course, was the impact on the east-west roads, especially Washington Road, where Princeton-bound traffic in the morning rush hour backed up as far as the train station. Commuters talked of 30-minute drives from the train station to Nassau Street, a trip that normally takes 10 minutes or less.
What the jughandle experiment confirmed for us is that the best improvements to Route 1’s north-south traffic also benefit the east-west traffic. The Meadow Road and Alexander Road overpasses both cleared up congestion in each direction. When the DOT closed the Nassau Park jughandle, it planned carefully for the expanded traffic getting on and off the Quakerbridge Road overpass. But the closing of the jughandles only made conditions worse for traffic crossing the highway. The net result, not surprisingly, was lose-lose for motorists on Route 1 and on the crossroads.
If not the jughandles, what can be done?
The DOT has several irons in the fire. First off, to the idea that improvements that just push the bottleneck further down the road and therefore aren’t worth doing, the DOT, in the words of spokesperson Dee, “rejects that defeatist notion.”
One small improvement on the drawing board now involves extending a deceleration lane for Route 1 southbound motorists turning right at Finnegans Lane, a crossroad a few miles north of U.S. 1’s survey area. Says Dee: “This longer deceleration lane will better accommodate demand and reduce congestion in the through lanes.”
The DOT’s announcement ending the experiment refrained from offering any specific next steps, but it did say that the department would be “be exploring value-engineered solutions involving a buildable project or projects to fight congestion in this corridor.”
If the DOT would like a few specifics, here are several:
Extend West Windsor’s Vaughn Drive from Alexander Road to Washington Road near the Princeton Junction train station. This may happen anyway as a part of the proposed transit village at the station.
Extend Canal Pointe Boulevard, which runs parallel to Route 1 from Alexander Road to Farber Road, to Nassau Park and Quakerbridge Road.
Eliminate left hand turns at the Carnegie Boulevard jughandle during rush hour periods. (Don’t close the jughandle altogether — a lesson learned from the recent Washington Road and Harrison Street closings.)
Extend the deceleration lane for the Harrison Street jughandle on the northbound side of Route 1. That land, in front of the Sarnoff Center, would have to be acquired in any case if (or when) an overpass is constructed there.
Widen the county bridge that crosses the Delaware & Raritan Canal on Alexander Road, which may not improve overall traffic much but will make the road safer for motorists and bicyclists.
Is the DOT listening? We can’t be sure. But, as the residents of the Penns Neck neighborhood made clear, the department can certainly hear when the message is made loud and clear.