July 29, 2020

DOT Blocks Slow Streets Initiative; Hope Remains in Appeals to Governor

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton’s Slow Streets pilot program has been blocked, at least for now, with the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT) claiming that the initiative violates a 1955 statute which prohibits municipalities from restricting traffic on their streets. 

“We’re in a holding pattern,” said Princeton Council President David Cohen. “The DOT has put up some pretty high barriers for us being able to implement the Slow Streets at all. They want us to do traffic studies to lower speed limits, and if we want to do 48-hour closures they would want us to ban all cars from the neighborhood which would mean that residents couldn’t drive their cars in.”

The Council and the mayor are working with the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition (NJBWC) and other advocacy groups to try to convince the governor’s office that the pandemic justifies changing the rules temporarily, Cohen said.   

He continued, “As an executive branch agency, the DOT doesn’t have the leeway to override statutory regulations that are in place, but the governor, as he’s done with other executive orders around the pandemic, could say, ‘We’re going to suspend this rule or that rule for the duration of the pandemic.’  We’re encouraging people to do advocacy through the governor’s office.”

Cohen said that the Princeton mayor and the municipal engineer had met with the DOT to try to work something out, but to no avail.

Starting in the last week in June, about a dozen residential streets were designated as Slow Streets, with drive-through traffic discouraged and vehicles asked to slow down to keep the streets safe for pedestrians and children.

“The Slow Streets initiative is part of a larger effort to rebalance our roadways in response to changed patterns of use during the COVID pandemic and the associated shutdown,” Cohen wrote in a July 8 letter to Town Topics signed jointly by Princeton Bicycle Advisory Committee Chair Lisa Serieyssol.

The letter went on to note the need for more space for pedestrians walking on narrow sidewalks with social distancing guidelines in place. “Slow Streets are an attempt not to change behavior but to validate, and formally authorize, the new patterns of roadway use during the pandemic,” Cohen’s letter stated.

Sustainable Princeton Executive Director Molly Jones noted that the Slow Streets were providing many opportunities for healthy interaction along with social distancing. “It’s a real win for our community in supporting our younger generation,’ she said.

The DOT ruling was an unexpected setback for Cohen and municipal authorities, who had done extensive research and consulted numerous authorities on the initiative. “It was a surprise,” he said. “We knew there were a half a dozen towns throughout New Jersey that were already doing Slow Streets, and I think what happened was that the DOT hadn’t gotten wind of what we all were doing.” The DOT is now blocking similar projects throughout the state.    

The NJBWC is writing to the DOT, “asking for reconsideration of the above ruling by DOT and flexibility in the application of their approach to street changes at this time,” NJBWC Executive Director Debra Kagan wrote in an email. “Instead of tying the hands of local municipalities with antiquated bureaucratic rulings, they should be leading and helping towns and cities who are creating new ways to address both the economic and health crisis caused by COVID and reduce the risk for all their residents.”

Cohen stated that Princeton’s response to the Slow Streets had been overwhelmingly positive, ”four or five to one, positive to negative responses.”  He was hopeful that the governor, if not the DOT, would come around and permit the implementation of  Slow Streets. “In the long run, I think this is something that has to be grappled with,” he said.