Towns game for Route 92 talks

By: Joseph Harvie, Staff Writer    
South Brunswick Post, 03/03/2005

Representatives from several towns will get together to have roundtable discussion

Representatives from several towns with a stake in whether Route 92 will be built say they are willing to hold roundtable discussion on the effects the highway would have on the area.

But Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu, whose town is one of two through which the highway would run, said no discussions should be held until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases its final environmental impact statement on the 6.7-mile limited-access toll road highway.

The roundtable was first proposed in the fall by the Princeton Joint Environmental Commission and has been officially endorsed by both Princeton Borough and Princeton Township. The mayors of South Brunswick and Franklin also say they are interested in the process.

South Brunswick and Franklin are opposed to Route 92, as are the governments of Montgomery, Rocky Hill, Hillsborough and the Hopewells. They are concerned that the road will cause damage to the immediate area and add traffic to local roads, especially those west of its Route 1 terminus. The road would connect N.J. Turnpike at Exit 8A with Route 1 at Ridge Road.

The state Department of Environmental Protection issued permits for the road in 1999, which have since expired. The Turnpike Authority has filed for new permits. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has refused to issue permits, leaving the matter in the hands of the Army Corps.

The Army Corps released a draft Environmental Impact Study to the public regarding the road in April. A public hearing on the document was held in May.

The two Princetons have been on record supporting construction of Route 92, but agreed to the roundtable idea after the Joint Environmental Commission announced its opposition to the road in October.

The roundtable, if it happens, would be attended by municipal officials and community groups and representatives from the N.J. Turnpike Authority. The discussions would be mediated by a third party, according to the mayors.

The roundtable would be similar to one held by the state Department of Transportation from 2001 to 2003 to resolve differences regarding the Millstone bypass, a 2.3-mile roadway first proposed by the DOT in 1983 that would have connected Route 571 near the Princeton Junction train station to Washington Road near Carnegie Lake. West Windsor wanted the bypass built, but the two Princetons were opposed.

After two years of discussion, the bypass plan was scrapped and replaced with a smaller series of improvements that include lowering Route 1 under Washington Road, creating new north-south access roads for local traffic, realigning Harrison Street and extending Vaughn Drive.

Officials who attended the discussion said the outcome of the roundtable met the needs of several communities, but West Windsor residents and council members, who wanted the bypass, were not satisfied with the proposed plan. West Windsor officials said some of their concerns were ignored, such as an east-west connector on Washington Road to alleviate traffic on the road, which was not part of the bypass plan.

South Brunswick is hoping a roundtable will lead to the end of Route 92.

"We need all the players involved to come in and come up with a solution that is best for the region," South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese said. "And no one should come in with their back up. We need to have calm, thoughtful discussions."

Princeton Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand said the Millstone bypass discussions are proof that the roundtable could work.

"It was very helpful and I think almost everybody that participated in it felt their opinions were heard and there were some compromises made," Mayor Marchand said. "It was very fruitful and it was not easy and parts of it were very tedious, but the good thing was nobody dropped out."

Mayor Marchand said several towns did not get what they had hoped for out of the roundtable, including West Windsor, but the fact that all of the parties stayed through the process is proof that the discussions worked.

Franklin Township, which shares the historic village of Kingston with South Brunswick, has not formally agreed to the roundtable discussion, but Mayor Brian Levine said it would be a good idea.

Mayor Levine said he would like to see a well-organized meeting that can be handled in a respectful manner.

"I've seen a lot of committees formed with mayors and representatives and people who could cut to the chase," Mayor Levine said. "And that's what I would like to see. Not just another committee to discuss something."

He said residents would have to have a say during the process, but he does not want to see them lead the discussion, which he said could slow the process down.

"The citizens should be used for input," Mayor Levine said. "I don't want it to turn into one of those things where people discuss things forever."

Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu said he wouldn't support the roundtable discussions.

"A full blown EIS is in the process of being completed and any discussions of a roundtable are at best premature," Mayor Cantu said.

He encouraged other towns to wait for the EIS before asking for a roundtable.

Princeton Borough Mayor Joseph O'Neill said keeping truck traffic generated by the N.J. Turnpike off residential roads is vital to reducing congestion in the area.

"Exit 8A on the Turnpike has become an inland 'port,' " Mayor O'Neill said. "Trucks come in on 8A and radiate east, west and north. They not only create a need for a new route now, they create a far greater need in the future to move trucks where they want to go."

Mayor O'Neill said he supports finding an east-west road that will keep heavy traffic off of local roads. He said the borough is willing to take a closer look at the road since the Princeton Environmental Commission reported some concerns it had with the EIS.

"It is not that we are unwilling to study it," Mayor O'Neill said. "What we want is an outcome that routes interstate traffic away from the towns."

Mayor Gambatese said South Brunswick is looking to extend two existing roads that would help ease east-west traffic on smaller roads. Route 522 runs from Route 27 to Route 130 and is planned to be extended this year to connect to Ridge Road near the Turnpike overpass near Route 535. The township also is seeking to convince Middlesex County to extend Finnegans Lane, which runs from Route 27 to Route 1, to meet Route 130 in North Brunswick.

"The ending of Route 92 at Route 1 tells me that it is not an area problem-solving road," Mayor Gambatese said. "There are thousands of houses going up on Route 27 in Franklin and none of this was considered prior to Route 92 being discussed. The people living there need a way to (travel) east-west without decimating South Brunswick."

Widening Route 1 in South Brunswick also would improve traffic flow in the area, Mayor Gambatese said.

"We never solved some of the real bottleneck transportation problems and the Route 1 problem is right here," Mayor Gambatese said. "It is six miles of roadway that, if it is widened, it changes the flow of traffic in entire state of New Jersey."

Mayor Marchand said the Township Committee will continue to support Route 92 but will also support the roundtable.

"That is what my colleagues in the Township Committee support, (Route 92), but they want to know that this indeed is the best road," Mayor Marchand said. "They made a commitment to support that type of road and to make sure it is the right type of alignment that has been laid out for the township."

Martin Robins, director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Edward J. Bloustein School at Rutgers University, said municipalities with a stake in Route 92 should make sure all parties are interested in a roundtable and then contact the state DOT and the N.J. Turnpike Authority.

Mr. Robbins worked on the Draft Environmental Impact Study for the Millstone bypass and was part of the group in charge of that roundtable.

"There needs to be a dialog between the local government and the state agencies to see where things stand and what kind of continued conversations should occur," Mr. Martin said. "I would say don't rule out this kind of procedure."

Mayor Gambatese said he would be willing to initiate the roundtable process with the other towns. He said he would send letters out to area towns including the Princetons, Hopewell Township and Hopewell Borough, Plainsboro, Rocky Hill, Franklin, Hillsborough, West Windsor, Monroe and Cranbury to gauge the municipalities' interest in the roundtable.

"I don't care. I'll get it started, I'll make the calls to the other townships and the agencies," Mayor Gambatese said. "We need to know how to do this, and we need to get this started."

Mr. Robins said the Millstone Bypass roundtable met 35 times during a two-and-one-half-year period. He said a similar commitment would have to be made by those interested in a Route 92 forum.

"A tremendous commitment is required for that type of meeting," Mr. Robins said. "People need to put anger and their strongly held feelings aside to look at the facts and look at something with fresh eyes. It takes a lot of commitment on the part of a lot of people considering there is a great deal of interest in transportation east and west in that part of Middlesex County. It is worthy to be pursued."

Mayor Gambatese said the next step should be communicating with the DOT to see if funding is available for a mediator and possible students.

"You need to have some kind of funding from somewhere and then you need to constitute how many members would be on the forum," Mayor Gambatese said. "Would it be five members or 20-something members like the (Millstone Bypass) roundtable. There are quite a few people from Rutgers that ran the Hightstown forum we should sit down with them and pick their brains about these things to help get this started."