HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP: Bear Tavern Road speed-limit squabble continues

Kim Robinson urged committee to take over the road or, alternately, see if the county would be willing to agree to a “swap.”

By John Tredrea, Special Writer
   The months-old controversy over the speed limit in front of Bear Tavern Elementary School dominated Monday night’s Hopewell Township Committee meeting, with over a dozen residents saying the committee should do what’s necessary to lower the limit to 25 mph.
   Over a month ago, Mercer County denied the Hopewell Township Committee’s request to lower the speed limit on Route 579 near Bear Tavern School to 25 mph from 6:45 a.m.-6:45 p.m. on school days and during special events at the school.
   The Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education also made that request of the county.
   In a June 13 letter to township Mayor Vanessa Sandom, County Executive Brian Hughes said the county is willing to discuss turning over jurisdiction of portions of Route 579 to the township. If that happened, Mr. Hughes said, the township could set whatever speed limit it pleased, with a price tag attached: the township would be responsible for all costs of maintaining the road. The county pays those costs now, because Route 579 is a county road.
   In his letter to Mayor Sandom — in response to a township resolution requesting the 25 mph limit — Mr. Hughes reiterated the county’s position that state and federal traffic engineering guidelines hold that the current 30-mph limit in front of the school when the lights are flashing, and 45 mph when they are not flashing, is the best course.
   He also repeated the county’s statement that the issue of speed limits in front of the school would be revisited when the Jacobs Creek Bridge reopens. The new bridge will cross Jacobs Creek on Route 579, near the Jacobs Creek Road intersection. A bridge built in the late 19th century was removed in 2011 because of damage caused by Hurricane Irene. The bridge already had been closed — by the county Department of Transportation on Sept. 24, 2009.
   Work on the bridge has not started yet. Julie Willmot, director of communications, County of Mercer, said Wednesday that the NJ Department of Transportation “reports that the (bridge) project is moving forward and will go out to bid in the next few weeks. “
   In his letter to Mayor Sandom, Mr. Hughes said he is willing to discuss turning sections of the county’s jurisdiction over Route 579 to the township. The sections, Mr. Hughes said, could either run from Jacobs Creek Road north to Route 546, located just north of the school, or from Jacobs Creek Road north to Harbourton-Woodsville Road, which is north of Route 546. The county would be responsible for the new bridge, Mr. Hughes said, if either of those arrangements were implemented.
   At Monday night’s committee meeting, the first resident to speak on the speed limit issue was Kim Robinson, a leader of the effort to have the limit lowered to 25 mph. She urged the committee to take over the road or, alternately, see if the county would be willing to agree to a “swap,” under which the township would take over a 1-mile-long stretch of Bear Tavern Road in exchange for the county taking over a 1-mile stretch of roadway currently owned by the township.
   But Ms. Robinson insisted that the township assume ownership of Bear Tavern Road if that is what it would take to get the limit lowered. Noting that the township already owns and maintains 133 miles of road, she said; “I’m confident we have the resources.”
   Everyone else who spoke on the issue during the public hearing made similar comments. One of the speakers, Robert O’Boyle, a longtime art teacher at Central High School, said lowering the limit was vitally important because “our children are our greatest resource.”
   Hopewell Valley school board member, Jim Wulf, who said he was speaking for himself and not that board, said Bear Tavern “is a very busy school at drop-off time” and that the township should “take over the road if necessary.”
   The 1-mile-long stretch of Bear Tavern Road on which the school is located runs from a T-intersection with Jacobs Creek Road to a signalized intersection with Route 546. Township Administrator/Engineer Paul Pogorzelski estimated Monday night that the cost of maintaining that 1-mile stretch is $69,000 annually, plus another $10,000 annually for snow plowing and other contingencies.
   After the public hearing ended, the committee members discussed the issue among themselves.
   Committeemen Allen Cannon and Harvey Lester said the committee must explore all options, including the road swap idea raised by Ms. Robinson, before making a decision.
   ”We have an obligation to explore all the options,” Mr. Lester said. “We need to leave no stone unturned before we make a decision.” Echoing a comment made by Committeeman Jim Burd, he added that he would want solid assurance that the township really could lower the speed limit if it takes over the road.
   ”There’s still some options out there we need to explore,” Mr. Cannon said. “Perhaps other roadways could be involved in these talks as well,” he said, in an effort to address the issue “holistically.”
   Committeeman Michael Markulec asked rhetorically: “Could there be a road exchange?” Then he added: “There could be an exchange, in my mind, but I don’t know if the county would be amenable to it.”
   A bit later in the discussion, Mr. Markulec added: “We’d need to clarify terms, but I am interested in the possibility of taking over this road.”
   He said that could give the township more authority to put “traffic calming” measures in place when traffic increases after the new bridge over Jacobs Creek opens.
   ”The clock is ticking,” Mr. Burd said. “School opens again in September. We as a township must take steps to ensure the safety of children at this school.”