End of the road for Byram

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:51

    BYRAM-Byram officials may have reached the end of the road in their attempts to delay the state's plan to widen Route 206 by up to five lanes through the center of the township. Earlier this week, the Department of Transportation rejected the township council's request for a six-month moratorium on the planning and design of the $26.5 million project. DOT is expected to break ground in Byram late next year, but the council wants local and state officials to take more time to address township planning goals for the congested, 1.2-mile stretch of roadway. In what may have been a last-ditch attempt to put the brakes on the DOT project, Byram officials turned to state Sen. Robert Littell (R-24), a longtime proponent of the Route 206 project, for support. However, Littell disagreed with the municipality's request to slow the pace of the project. He said recent development and population growth in Sussex County has only exacerbated the previously existing conditions, and that further delays to proceed with the project, which was first surfaced more than 10 years ago, would risk earmarked funding for the work. "The Route 206 improvement project has been a work in progress for a very long period of time and many changes have been made to accommodate the suggestions offered by both residents and past and previous local officials," said the senator. "At this time, I am not certain that any further delay will produce a significant result." DOT Commissioner Jack Lettiere intends to advance the project along expeditiously to avoid additional costs in both design and construction. "Phasing the construction or implementing a six-month moratorium in the design of this project will increase design, right of way, and construction costs," he said. "I am convinced that doing so will not yield additional solutions that haven't already been analyzed." Byram officials believe the moratorium is critical to the success of the project and were hoping that DOT would reassess its plans to consider new transportation planning systems, the township's inclusion in the Highland preservation area, and the state's emphasis on "smart growth." Lettiere said new methodologies used on similar projects in Trenton and Flemington were not practical solutions in Byram because of local, environmental and geographical constraints. "There are occasions where Smart Growth initiatives alone cannot solve congestion problems and traditional methods must be utilized," said Lettiere. "Route 206 is truly a gateway to Sussex County. Therefore, Byram Township, Sussex County, and NJDOT must assume responsibilities for local, regional, and statewide transportation needs in the area." The Byram council supports a phased approach to the realignment of intersections, coordination of traffic lights and various pedestrian-friendly improvements to the area from Alcorn Street to the vicinity of Waterloo Village near the Byram Plaza off Lackawanna Road. Lettiere said DOT has compromised to address Byram's concerns by including a center turn lane to provide ready access to local businesses, a pedestrian tunnel for future rail connections, and the placement of design features to coincide with the proposed village center. "The collaboration between all of the parties involved has produced a project that minimizes impacts to the environment and to Byram Township residents and businesses," said Lettiere. "With the exception of the necessary intersection improvements and the construction of water quality basins, most of the proposed improvements are located within NJDOT's existing right of way." Byram Mayor Eskil "Skip" Danielson has said the township hasn't seen enough of a "Context-Sensitive Design" to sign-off on the project. Danielson was referring to a state-backed process that encourages collaboration with stakeholders so that the project reflects the goals of the people who live, work, and travel in the area. DOT held its last public hearing in May, the fourth meeting in the past two years, to outline its plans for Route 206 improvements. But Danielson said he realizes the township may have little choice, but to accept DOT plans. If it doesn't, he said Byram could risk losing millions of dollars in state aid altogether. DOT plans to move ahead with billions of dollars in highway and mass transit projects even though it does not have enough money to complete them. State transportation officials are counting on covering part of the tab with money from the budget that starts in July 2006. Byram officials have said that the state has hinted that rejection of the DOT proposal could even jeopardize funding for future road projects in the township. Councilman James Esposito Jr. has said DOT plans are at least two decades old and do not consider recent developments to the area including the proposed Route 605 extension that would connect Route 206 and Sparta-Stanhope Road as well as the Highlands legislation. "The project's location in the Highlands region is of particular concern to working on the project," said Lettiere. "Be assured that NJDOT will comply with the Highlands Commission's regulatory requirements, and that every effort to minimize potential impacts and improve the region's water quality is being made on this project." Byram received an $80,000 smart growth grant from the Office of State Planning to revitalize its downtown, which led to modified zoning ordinances, reserved sewage gallonage, state designation for its village center, and plans for mandated affordable housing units that will focus development toward the stretch of roadway on Route 206. Some township officials cite a 2004 transportation study that concludes that adding more traffic lanes to Route 206 is at best a temporary solution to the increased traffic flow of the section of highway. The plan goes on to accept the Sussex County report that "bigger roads typically attract more development, more traffic, and more congestion." "This project will provide a safer highway with reduced congestion, and alleviate the problems associated with it such as motorist delays, additional air pollution and aggressive driving behaviors," said Lettiere. North Byram Concerned Citizens, a community group that opposes the planned widening, believes DOT's proposal would make Byram a drive-through town and not a place very accommodating to visitors.