A traffic control system that gives emergency vehicles the ability to change a red light to green has been purchased by the University Medical Center at Princeton. Known as Opticom, the program will help Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad (PFARS) and Princeton University Public Safety vehicles rush patients through the intersection of Harrison Street and Route One to the new hospital complex, which is scheduled to open in May.
The remote-control-operated system, which is in use in neighboring municipalities, gives squads the ability to change the light at Harrison Street, from which they can then pull onto the highway and turn immediately into an access road that leads directly to the emergency room of the hospital.
While this and other efforts by the Medical Center to address traffic issues related to its move from downtown Princeton to Plainsboro are appreciated by some, others remain concerned that access to the emergency room will be compromised. Those not using PFARS to transport someone to the hospital in an emergency could be caught in backed-up traffic with tragic results, they say.
“There is concern that has been presented in the community,” said Township Mayor Chad Goerner. “The initial response to allow for the light changing is a step in the right direction, and we’re going to have to evaluate and make improvements where we can. The ideal situation would have been to have some greater infrastructure improvements,” he added, referring to the Penn’s Neck Bypass, which was proposed a few years ago but abandoned due to environmental concerns. Resurrecting that project would cost upwards of $200 million that the New Jersey Department of Transportation currently does not have.
Access from Princeton to the hospital’s emergency room is among the topics likely to be discussed at an upcoming open meeting of Princeton Future. The community organization will gather in Princeton Public Library’s Community Room on Saturday, February 18, at 9 p.m. for a discussion of emergency management. Representatives of the hospital, Princeton University, Capital Health Systems, PFARS, and Princeton Borough Police will serve on a panel addressing storms and hurricanes, isolation and power outages, preparedness, hazards and threats, and other issues.
“We’re in trouble here, and getting to the hospital, though they’ve done their best, will be a problem,” said Sheldon Sturges, a member of the council of Princeton Future. “We basically need that bypass, but nobody has the money for it now. If one of the outcomes of all this chat between well-meaning people is to figure out how to make sense of the increasing congestion we are facing, then that will be something positive. We need to work together and figure these things out.”
Among those serving on the panel at the Princeton Future event is Pam Hersh, who is Vice President for Government and Community Affairs for Princeton Healthcare System. Ms. Hersh, who has been working on the access issue for the past six years, says that turning onto Route 1 from Harrison Street has already become easier since the NJDOT added a new lane between Eden Way and Route 1, from which it is possible to turn left or right.
“Thus, at the new intersection, it is now possible to go left to the new hospital from two lanes,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Since the completion of the project on December 31, 2011, the backups at Harrison have disappeared. The wait time at the worst rush hour time periods is no more than 1.5 light changes.”
Ms. Hersh added that the reduction in congestion on Harrison Street has been measured with current traffic levels coming out of Princeton. Once the hospital relocates, “… it is moving closer to 70 percent of its patients and employees,” she wrote. “Therefore, traffic volumes coming in and out of Princeton should be reduced, thus making access from Princeton to Plainsboro via Harrison Street even better than it is now.”
The DOT’s recent information session on an experimental closing of the Route 1 jughandles at Harrison Street and Washington Road, starting in mid-March and lasting possibly through May, did not go over well with members of the community. Yesterday, February 7, a group of Princeton officials, merchants, and representatives from Princeton University met with the DOT to ask for a postponement (see box on page 10).
At area organizations such as Princeton Senior Resource Center, the DOT project has inspired increased concern about the upcoming relocation of the hospital. “I think it’s on a lot of people’s minds, and the DOT’s plan to do this now just ramped up the anxiety level,” said PSRC director Susan Hoskins. “The worry about the move reminds me of when the [Princeton Public] library closed down to renovate, and people got all wound up about how it was going to be impossible to get to the library when it was temporarily in the Princeton Shopping Center. Then after it happened some people found it was actually easier. But at the same time, there were people for whom it did become harder to access.
“The same thing might happen here,” Ms. Hoskins said. “But the reality is that it will be harder for some people. We’re making sure that the Crosstown, which is door-to-door car service, will go there. It has been available until now for rides within Princeton. We’re working to ensure that it will be there for people who need it to go to the new hospital.”
Frank Setnicky, who is the director of PFARS, said the emergency squad has been testing the times of rides to the new hospital from different parts of town. “We’ve gone all different routes at different times, and we will be able to get there,” he said. “We will never cross Route 1 against the light. With Optimum, we can clear traffic and get right through. It is something for all of us to get used to, but we think it will work.”
But not all rides to the emergency room are provided by emergency vehicles. “Many people use emergency services without using the EMT’s,” said Ms. Hoskins. “Say your kid is bleeding, you just want to get him to the hospital as quickly as you can so you jump in the car to drive him. That could be a problem getting through.”
Ms. Hersh recommended that anyone with a real emergency call an ambulance rather than driving a patient to the hospital. “Ambulances can always get through the traffic plus EMT’s and medics save lives,” she wrote. “But it will only take minutes to get to the new hospital even if you self drive — which again is not recommended in a real emergency.”