PRINCETON: Washington Road crosswalk proposal tangled in red tape

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Nearly one year since two people were hit by a car on Washington Road at the Delaware and Raritan Canal towpath, Mercer County officials still are trying to get all the necessary approvals to improve safety there.
They have proposed installing a mid-block crosswalk and two solar-powered, pedestrian-activated rapid flashing beacons, including one extending over the county road. To make the improvements, officials have needed to seek permission from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s historic preservation office and the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission.
The process of going through the regulatory “hoops” remains ongoing and growing, said one county official frustrated with the process.
    “We’re still working on it,” said Mercer County Freeholder Andrew Koontz, also a Princeton resident. “Our principle concern is addressing the safety issue at that intersection.”
    “While we’re going through an extensive approval process, God forbid that something happens at that intersection,” he continued. “We will do what it takes to get this done, to create a safe intersection on Washington Road. But the amount of time that it’s taking us to do this is putting the public at risk.”
The project was prompted by an accident Oct.18 in which 54-year-old Richard Regan and his then 8-year-old son, also Richard, were attempting to walk their bikes across Washington Road, when a car stopped to let them go. But a vehicle behind that lead motorist passed on the right and struck the two victims, according to Princeton Police.
They suffered what were described at the time as serious but not life-threatening injuries. But the incident led to calls for improved safety.
Ten days after the accident, the Princeton Council passed a resolution asking the county to put in a crosswalk, warning lights and “appropriate signage.” The town has said that safety at the three D& R Canal towpath crossings “is a concern.” Warning lights have been installed at the crossings at Harrison and Alexander streets but not at Washington, according to the town.
Freeholders voted in March to create the crosswalk. The project has the blessings of the Princeton Police. Police Sgt. Thomas Murray of the department’s traffic safety bureau said Monday that he was behind the proposal “100 percent.”
Yet the remedy has raised concerns that the overhead beacon will be too intrusive in an area that boasts of the allee of elm trees that provides a gateway to town from Route 1. Some members of the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission raised aesthetic concerns Monday when the project came before them for review.
“There should absolutely be crosswalks, absolutely no question about that. And there should be warning signs,” said commissioner Robert von Zumbusch. “But that overhead thing is an enormous intrusion. And I think that’s wrong.”
State regulators approved the project in August but asked that the county explore moving the overhead pole “to the south side of the crosswalk, further from the elm allee.”
Elizabeth H. Kim, the town’s historic preservation officer, last week issued preservation commission members a memo in which she touched on the beacons issue.
“It has been observed when beacons are flashing at the Alexander and Harrison Street locations, vehicles do not yield,” she wrote in part. “For whatever reason, the intent of the flashing beacons do not appear to be as successful as desired.”
“It is recommended its ineffectiveness be considered and evaluated for this location before introducing a more obtrusive version which will be a great presence at the proposed Washington Street location.”
In May, the Canal Commission approved an earlier version of the project but that was before the design changed to have a beacon hanging over the road.
Commission executive director Marlene Dooley said Tuesday that the county would have to go back before the commission with the new design. A hearing has not been scheduled, she said.
“Our original application with the D&R Canal was to use just pole mounted facilities on each side and we had received approval for that type of installation,” said county spokeswoman Julie Wilmont in an email Tuesday. “But since then we had to change it with overhead on one side because of existing utility conflicts and better sight distance to see the rectangular rapid flashing pedestrian beacons.”
“The county cannot start the work until we receive the comments back from Princeton Historical Society and then we have to update our application to the D&R Canal Commission for their approval,” Ms. Wilmont said.