Some 45 local residents and interested users of Valley Road turned out Monday, June 15, for a neighborhood meeting designed to elicit their ideas and concerns with respect to planned improvements for Valley Road as part of the municipality’s capital improvement program.
Valley Road, between Witherspoon and North Harrison streets, will undergo a redesign, funded in part by a grant from the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The redesign will be done in the context of Princeton’s Complete Streets Policy, adopted in 2013, as well as the town’s master plan, which Mayor Liz Lempert acknowledged is now somewhat out-of-date but has to be worked with until it is revised.
This was the second such meeting and, like the first on May 12, it was chaired by Ms. Lempert.
Among the participants were Princeton Engineer Bob Kiser, Assistant Municipal Engineer Deanna Stockton, Municipal Arborist Lorraine Konopka, Council member Jenny Crumiller, Traffic Safety Officer Sgt. Thomas Murray III, volunteer Steve Kruse of the Pedestrian and Bicyle Advisory Committee, and volunteer Sam Bunting of the Traffic and Transportation Committee.
Longtime Valley Road residents Charlie and Antoniette Mauro had come along with their daughter Josephine Molnar, who grew up on Valley Road and visits her parents there often. They expressed concerns that “improvements” will result in more traffic on Valley Road and questioned the impact on children crossing the road on their way to school. They were also worried about the potential impact on the value of their property if the municipality decides to meander sidewalks onto their lawn.
“The purpose of the meeting is to talk about road design,” said Ms. Lempert, who noted that as yet the municipality had no fixed plan in place but is working on one and seeking the input of the neighborhood. She explained that the meeting was not an official public hearing but rather an informal presentation to gather ideas.
“There has been a shift in road design in recent years,” she said. “It used to be that a road was to get people from A to B as quickly as possible but now we want to make it safer for walkers and bicyclists as well as motor vehicle traffic. If we can reduce the speed of vehicles, we could make Valley Road more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. It’s impossible to have a police presence on every street, so how can we give drivers the cues to slow down?”
Before residents were invited to comment, they heard a report from the town arborist Lorraine Konopka, three and a half months into her new job. Ms. Konopka reported on the health of Valley Road’s trees, mostly London Planes sited at intervals of, on average, 35 feet. “Our goal is to preserve as many as possible,” she said, noting that four London Plane trees and one Sugar Maple were showing significant signs of decay and were potentially dangerous. She reported on 17 potential tree removals, ranging from saplings to full grown trees.
Several residents were concerned about plantings in their yards bordering the sidewalk and Ms. Konopka noted such “extensive landscaping” at seven residences.
To residents wondering how far onto their property the municipality might venture, Mr. Kiser explained that Valley Road has a 35-foot right of way, which for residents means approximately 17.5 feet from the edge of the road on both sides. “This is often taken up by a grass strip and an existing sidewalk,” he said, and invited residents to stop by the municipal building to look at maps if they needed to check out the right of way with respect to their particular property line.
Responding to Ms. Konopka, one resident asked about the extent of damage to tree roots by impervious surfaces placed over them. “A tremendous amount,” she said, adding that roots can extend under the ground to some three times the distance of the canopy, that is three times the drip line radius. “Trees can tolerate some disturbance but hardline severing of roots is not one of them,” she said.
“Does that mean that you would not be in favor of paved paths over the roots,” she was asked, to which she responded: “To preserve the trees we should stay away from the roots as much as possible.”
When another resident suggested that restoring the existing four-foot wide sidewalks would be “a real good choice,” the room erupted with applause. Clearly that is an option to which residents are well-disposed. But one block of Valley Road has no sidewalks. Would putting in a sidewalk necessitate removing existing trees, the arborist was asked. Not necessarily, we could meander those sidewalks, she replied.
Ms. Konopka said that she would be carrying out a hazard risk assessment on problematic trees and that crews would be working in the next weeks to remove dead branches.
Another resident asked whether it was possible to use some pervious rather than impervious materials for sidewalks. In response, Ms. Stockton said that such material had been used on Cherry Valley and Littlebrook and that it was an option to be considered in terms of cost benefit, maintenance, and longevity.
Ms. Stockton then presented the results of a speed monitor that has been installed on Valley Road, which showed a weekday daily use of Valley Road by 6142 motor vehicles, 99 pedestrians on the south side, 32 pedestrians on the north side, eight west bound bicycles and 13 eastbound pedestrians. Speed data analysis showed that two thirds of vehicles kept to the speed limit.
Classified as a minor collector roadway, Valley Road has a 25-mph speed limit and a five-ton weight restriction and sidewalks along both sides of the road except for the northern side of Valley between Witherspoon and Jefferson.
School crossing guards staff the Valley Road intersections with Walnut Lane and Witherspoon Street for elementary and middle school student crossings, and excluding the North Harrison Street and Witherspoon Street intersections, 50 percent of Valley Road accidents occur at Jefferson Road; almost 40 percent at Walnut Lane.
Traffic accident data was provided by Sgt. Murray, who reported that he and Ms. Stockton had considered many options for reducing these.
A show of hands indicated that most residents would like to see increased lighting on the street but the idea of having pedestrians and bicyclists sharing a pathway met with criticism, even though many residents reported encounters with parents and children riding on the sidewalks without incident.
Sgt. Murray pointed out that sharrows painted on the roadway such as those on Witherspoon Street are not intended to be a safety measure for bicyclists but rather as a message to motorists to share the road. He reminded the meeting’s attendees that there is not one answer for all, but the purpose was to get the best design to address the needs of all stakeholders.
The meeting started at 7 p.m. and by 8:30 p.m. tempers were beginning to fray, as no specific plans for the road had as yet been forthcoming. Heidi Fichtenbaum of the Princeton Environmental Commission suggested that it was time to see what options were being considered.
Since the idea of an 8-foot-wide multi-use path had been deemed unacceptable by the majority of residents at the first meeting, it was taken off the table. Is it even possible to have a dedicated bike lane on Valley Road, someone asked, to which Mr. Kiser responded: “Potentially yes, but since the roadway is less than 30 feet wide, installing a bike lane could remove parking from the street unless it was possible to park between the trees.”
Other ideas mooted were to make Valley Road one way or close it off entirely to vehicular traffic (with the exception of emergency and police vehicles).
Several residents who are keen bicyclists noted the existence of bike paths on Guyot and questioned the need for them on Valley Road. One rider, a former Seattle resident, suggested that the best roads for bikers were the quiet back streets of Princeton.
Steve Kruse spoke on behalf of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee (PBAC), whose mission is “to advise council on how to achieve their aspirational goals of being a more safe, sustainable, bike-friendly community,” explained Mr. Kruse by email. “Providing a continuous network of the safest possible bike facilities is the way to do this, and dedicated lanes on the roadway are basically what it will take. West Windsor and New York City are already leading the way on this,” he said.
Sam Bunting of the Traffic and Transportation Committee presented a visual “mock up” of several options for the road, one of which was to install dedicated bike lanes on the road that would create a physical separation between cycle traffic and motor vehicles, confined to 10 foot lanes.
“One in three cars is speeding on Valley Road, if we can narrow the road, we can slow those cars down and it will be a safer environment.” he said. “Sharrows do not narrow the roadway and with a 6 foot wide multiuse path, there is the potential for cyclist/pedestrian conflict.”
The idea of reducing motor lanes to just ten feet prompted much conversation. One resident pointed out that this is as wide as the Alexander Road bridge.
If this sounded daunting, Jerry Foster of the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association, a transportation safety education nonprofit, commented that contemporary research shows that ten foot lanes encourage motorists to slow down and maintain the speed limit, which benefits motorists in terms of safety.
“Given that the empirical evidence favors ‘narrower is safer,’ the ‘wider is safer’ approach based on personal or intuitional opinion should be discarded once and for all,” he said by email. “The findings acknowledge human behavior is impacted by the street environment, and narrower lanes in urban areas result in less aggressive driving and more ability to slow or stop a vehicle over a short distance to avoid collision. Designers of streets can utilize the ‘unused space’ to provide an enhanced public realm, including cycling facilities and wider sidewalks, or to save money on the asphalt not used by motorists.”
Asked to clarify the next steps in the process, Ms. Stockton said that as soon as the survey was completed in the next few weeks, it would form the basis of a design; another neighborhood meeting might take place in September; any changes to parking would need a public hearing; and, by the terms of the state grant, a construction contract had to be awarded by the end of December.
Mr. Kiser noted that more discussions were necessary and told residents to feel free to mail him or any of the municipal participants with comments and feedback.
For more information, call (609) 921-7077, email email@example.com, or visit: www.princetonnj.gov.