Area officials, DOT find no common ground on Route 206

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:49

    BYRAM-The Township Council is expected Monday to formally call for a six-month moratorium on the planning and design of improvements to Route 206 through the center of town. Council members opposed to a $26.5 million Department of Transportation plan for widening a 1.2-mile stretch of Route 206 by up to five lanes believe the approved resolution would give local and state officials more time to address cost-effective, long-term relief for the congested roadway and township planning goals. "We all agree that Route 206 needs to be addressed to allow traffic through the corridor, but we're very disappointed that even DOT engineers agree the plan would not fix the problem," said councilman Louis Esposito Jr. "We're looking for common sense answers from DOT." Township officials made their displeasure known in a strongly worded letter to DOT and the Highlands Council which states that "the moratorium and subsequent planning are critical to the success of the project." Byram officials hope DOT will reassess its plans before breaking ground on the project late next year. The y also hope the state will take into consideration new transportation planning systems, the township's inclusion in the Highland preservation area, and the state's own emphasis on "smart growth." "It's clear what's being proposed doesn't sit well with the council," said township manager Greg Poff. "All members of the council recognize something needs to be done. We just want to make sure that we get the best plan possible. If you're going to spend $20 million, spend it the best way you can." The council's majority supports a phased approach to the realignment of intersections, coordination of traffic lights and various pedestrian-friendly improvements to the area from Alcorn Street to the vicinity of Waterloo Village near the Byram Plaza off Lackawanna Road. At a DOT public hearing in Byram earlier this month, township council members believed they were "sandbagged" when state officials announced the project was scheduled to move forward without any major adjustments. Many residents and township officials who were anxious to suggest revisiting site plans were caught off-guard by the public disclosure. "What was the point of holding the meeting?" said Esposito. "We wanted to say ‘Hey, wait a minute.' " Byram Mayor Eskil "Skip" Danielson said the township wants the state to re-examine first aligning Brookwood and Waterloo roads, where traffic usually begins to back up, to create one intersection. Both roads are scheduled to be widened to consist of a right-turn lane and a shared left-turn and through lanes. Danielson also said the township believes re-aligning Lackawanna Road with Route 206 and synchronizing all traffic lights would reduce congestion along the roadway. The mayor said the town hasn't seen enough of a context-sensitive design to sign-off on the project. CSD is a state-backed process that involves a commitment by DOT to encourage collaboration so that the project reflects the goals of the people who live, work, and travel in the area. DOT held its last public hearing May 10, the fourth meeting in the past two years, to outline its plans for Route 206 improvements. "It's clear the majority of people in town want improvements to the roadway," said Danielson. "It's just to what degree they are gong to be done." Danielson said he realizes the township may have little choice, but to accept DOT plans. If it doesn't, he said citing a recent project on Route 517 in Mansfield, Byram could be at risk of losing millions of dollars in state aid altogether. "We're not in a position to demand anything," he said. "We've got to hope for a collaborative effort with the state." According to Byram officials, the state has hinted that rejection of the DOT proposal could even jeopardize funding for future road projects in the township. "This take it or leave it approach is an unacceptable way to treat a taxpayer," said Esposito. "We want to solve this problem. We want to work with DOT." Esposito said DOT plans are at least two decades old and do not consider recent developments to the area including the proposed Route 605 extension that would connect Route 206 and Sparta-Stanhope Road as well as the new Highlands legislation. Denice daCunha, a state consulting engineer on the project, said Trenton has already made a number of compromises including center turn lanes and 35 mph speed zones as adopted alternatives. Byram received an $80,000 smart growth grant from the Office of State Planning to revitalize its downtown, which led to modified zoning ordinances, reserved sewage gallonage, obtain state designation for its "village center," and plans for mandated affordable housing units that will focus development toward the stretch of roadway on Route 206. In its recently completed master plan, the township cites a 2004 transportation study that concludes adding more traffic lanes to Route 206 is at best a temporary solution to the increased traffic flow of the section of highway. The plan goes on to accept the Sussex County report that "bigger roads typically attract more development, more traffic, and more congestion." North Byram Concerned Citizens, a community group that opposes the planned widening, believes DOT's proposal would make Byram a drive-through town and not a place very accommodating to visitors. Karen Minch, a state project manager, said DOT has yet to give a final approval to the plan and will meet with Byram officials again to iron out minor details.