The peace didn’t last. Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh has resumed attending meetings since the new Council was sworn in this year, yet old partisan divides have re-emerged. The point of contention is not the budget like in years past, but the lane configurations for Canal Pointe Boulevard (CPB). The mayor said he is prepared to proceed under his legal authority with or without Council approval, while Council vice president Hemant Marathe has raised the prospect of opposing the administration through the budgeting process.
Squabbling aside, the earliest start for road improvements would be this fall. While there has been no official decision on the lane design, the administration has sent out a request for proposals for engineering and road surveying. A contract rewarded in April would produce an engineering report within 90 days, and the township would then need time to solicit and award bids for the actual road work. The contract for the engineering report is expected to be discussed at the Monday, April 4, Council meeting.
Everyone agrees the pockmarked road urgently needs repaving. However, Council president Linda Geevers and Marathe have questioned the mayor’s proposed “road diet” car lane reductions. Eleven months after the administration held a public meeting to present the proposal (The News, May 1, 2015), Council held a nearly three-hour work session to discuss the same subject at the March 21 meeting.
The proposed road diet would reduce the current four-lane configuration to three lanes: one narrower car travel lane in each direction plus a center lane for left turns. In addition, bike lanes would be marked on both sides. The intent is to improve safety by slowing down traffic and deterring rush hour commuters from using the segment of CPB between Alexander and Meadow roads as a Route 1 bypass. Slower traffic, and the addition of bike lanes, would in turn improve future bicycle and pedestrian access for the neighborhoods and businesses that straddle the road.
West Windsor Township has long opposed the use of CPB as an alternate to Route 1. Previous road design proposals from more than 20 years ago, pushed by neighboring municipalities seeking to shift Route 1 traffic onto township roads, called for CPB to extend past Princeton Country Club and into the Nassau Park retail center. Currently the administration sees the long overdue repaving as an opportunity to reconfigure the road lanes and further discourage non-local commuters.
“After going through the data, science, and two workshops, where the majority of public comments are in favor, I want road improvements to start this year,” Hsueh said. “The roadway itself is fixed. How wide and how long it is going to be is fixed. All we’re doing is re-striping. How to stripe the road is the administration’s decision, and that is based on professional opinion, approved by someone with a PE license.”
Hsueh added that the proposed redesign also complements bicycle initiatives by the businesses along CPB. Princeton University and NRG are working on installing bicycle sharing programs for their offices off CPB, while Market Fair is exploring bicycle storage.
Marathe has emerged as a vocal critic of the road diet plan (see his letters, pages 5 and 6). He slammed the mayor for not discussing the road diet proposal with Council. With the future residential development (Princeton Theological Seminary owns land on Wheeler Way that is zoned for up to 400 apartment units) and up to 1 million square feet of office space expansion at Carnegie Center West off CPB, Marathe argues lane reductions could worsen traffic conditions. He also says lane reductions would negatively impact fire and emergency vehicle access.
But Council member Alison Miller, who is also an officer of the West Windsor Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance, said after the meeting that the road diet benefits far outweigh the overstated downsides.
“What’s paramount is safety for the people who use the road the most and for people who have to use the road, which means the residents,” Miller said. “The people who use it as a shortcut have other options. The residents do not. I’ve heard a lot about sideswipes, rear endings, near misses. The first consideration is for those who are turning left going into the businesses or the residences.”
Added Miller: “I think there are some people who have looked at an old study that talks about how traffic will increase so much that there will be longer wait times. First of all that assumes a yearly increase in traffic since the study was done, which has not happened. The younger people drive less than the generation before them. When it comes to full build out, there will probably a warrant for a traffic signal at Carnegie Center Boulevard.”
Sergeant Danny Mohr heads the police department’s traffic division, and at the Council meeting he called the safety benefits a “no-brainer.”
“I believe the safety benefits of the road diet far outweigh the few times someone may stop in front of an EMS vehicle,” Mohr said. “There are high speeds right now, and if you repave that road, it’s going to be a race track. There’s no perfect scenario but when you look at the safety aspect of it, the benefits far outweigh any of the negatives.”
Traffic engineer Dean Kaiser, who works for the Burns Group consultancy that recommended the road diet, presented at the work session, which featured more than a dozen public comments.
“We’re basically becoming prisoners in our community during peak rush hours,” said Canal Pointe resident Clark Greyhosky, who opposed the road diet plan because the small number of bicyclists and pedestrians should not be prioritized before motorists.
Another resident noted the lack of bicyclists, though he said that might be attributed to the poor road conditions.
“If you repave the road, and it has to be done, it’s only going to make the speed limits faster,” said Ronald Burich, who is also the president of the Princeton Greens homeowner association. “The speed limits are too fast there, and it is very unsafe.”
Car speeds have steadily increased, slowed down only by the potholes.
“I’ve carried dead people off roads. Speed kills, there’s no doubt in my mind,” said retired state police captain and Canal Pointe resident Ted Strempack. “In reality it is going to be a three-lane road. The center lane, the third lane, is a safe haven to turn.”
“It’s very dangerous on CPB right now,” said Strempack’s next door neighbor, Bo Jonsson. “I’m a little surprised that we’re discussing this again when there was a meeting last year. After public comment 72 percent were in favor of the road diet. And now it comes up again. I think it’s pretty obvious that the majority of people want this done.”
Mayor Hsueh said he tabled the road diet plan for 2015 to avoid the issue becoming politicized in last fall’s Council election. He has listened to the public comments and instructed engineering professionals to incorporate public comment concerns, though he added that a lot of opposition comments originate from a “very well organized group from one party organization.”
The municipal budget still remains a hot topic. At the March 21 meeting Council introduced the 2016 budget, which is subject to change until the final vote after the public hearing Monday, April 18.
The introduced budget differed very slightly from the administration’s proposed budget. The budget is $39.993 million, a 2.25 percent increase from 2015. Anticipated general revenue was increased by more than $30,000 to $15.398 million, while the municipal levy was also reduced by more than $30,000 to $23.594 million.
The municipal levy for 2016 represents a 3.8 percent increase from 2015, or roughly 1.4 cents per $100 of assessed value. That raises the municipal tax rate to roughly 39.4 cents, a $70 increase for a house assessed at $500,000.
This year’s budget introduction proved less hectic than last year’s, when former Council president Bryan Maher delayed the introduction at the regularly scheduled Council meeting to comb through budget revisions.
In both 2014 and 2015 Council under Maher achieved zero municipal tax increase by trimming expenses and increasing projected revenues. This clashed with the mayor and administration’s conservative budget approach that under-anticipates revenue and uses controlled tax increases aimed at maintaining the fund balance and preserving services.
Earlier this year Hsueh said the budget process can no longer mirror past years and be held up at the mercy of “one person.”
Maher returned to Council at the March 21 meeting as a private citizen and in public comments dismissed the mayor’s “doom and gloom” warnings, imploring Council to rein in the “obscene” increases.
“You, the county, and the school board need to do a better job at keeping taxes under control,” he said. “The most sad thing is how many people I know, the minute their kid is out of school, they’re gone.”
Maher added he is a phone call away for budget advice and that he saw no need for any increases if the budget increased revenue anticipation for the fund balance and UCC fees. The latter is revenue is projected at $1 million while the realized revenue has well exceeded that figure the past few years.
Marshall Lerner, John Church, and Virginia Manzari also made public comments opposing the tax increase and size of the fund balance.
In other Council news, Council approved a resolution in support of adding a left turn signal to the existing traffic light on Princeton-Hightstown Road (County Route 571) at Bernt Midland Boulevard (Community Park) and Slayback Drive.
The county will modify the light in response to a fatal traffic accident last summer when resident Ruby Chiang was struck while turning left into Community Park.
“This will increase the safety for everyone traveling on 571, especially those traveling into Community Park or to Slayback,” said Council member Alison Miller.
Council also approved the appointment of Ajay Mookerjee to the Human Relations Council and Thomas Calabria as an alternate member to the affordable housing committee.
Police and emergency services evacuated the municipal complex on Clarksville Road on March 31 after the discovery of an envelope containing white power. The substance proved to be non-toxic and the K-9 unit did not find any suspicious material in the building.
Lieutenant Matt Kemp said the white envelope containing the innocuous powder was not sent to the municipal complex through the post office. He declined to give further details. “Someone thought this out, it was no accident,” he said.
Representatives of the Princeton Arms Center, home to Hong Kong Palace and Capuano’s on Old Trenton Road, will appear before the Planning Board on Wednesday, April 6. The applicant has previously been approved for a 38,240-square-foot expansion, which would roughly double the center’s current size.
According to Mayor Shing-fu Hsueh, who is on the Planning Board, the applicant has not met approval conditions for signage, appearance, and parking improvements, and is requesting a modification of its previous approval.