Route 206 widening remains on hold

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    BYRAM-Byram officials are willing to wait to hear from the Department of Transportation before reacting any further to community concerns about plans to expand lanes on Route 206 through the center of town to alleviate traffic and improve congestion flow. A member of a watchdog transportation group says the township council shouldn't hold its collective breath because the funding check may not be in the mail. Damien Newton, a coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign who addressed a meeting of the township council this week, said there's no telling what's in store for completing long-awaited highway projects still on the drawing board. Unless the Legislature approves an increase in the gasoline tax or finds other means of funding, the state may not have the money in subsequent years for the Route 206 project and others like it, officials said. The Transportation Trust Fund runs out of money after the upcoming budget, which begins July 1. For years, Byram officials have butted heads over a much-debated plan to widen Route 206 from two to four lanes for 1.2 miles from Acorn Street to the vicinity of Waterloo Village near the Byram Plaza off Lackawanna Road. "If we begin construction on the widening tomorrow, it's still going to take 2-3 years," said Byram Mayor Eskil "Skip" Danielson. Byram officials are waiting to hear back from DOT after expressing concerns about the project's ability to reduce congestion on the highway. In a letter to DOT earlier this month, the township council requested that DOT "re-examine the goals and outcomes" of the plan. "DOT has said if they were starting the study now, it wouldn't look the same," said Newton. "If DOT will admit they can do a better study, they should do it." Township officials believe transportation is no longer a way to spur residential and commercial development. In its recently completed master plan, the township cites a 2004 transportation study that concludes adding more traffic lanes to Route 206 is at best a temporary solution to the increased traffic flow of the section of the highway. The plan goes on to accept the Sussex County report that "bigger roads typically attract more development, more traffic, and more congestion." Elaine Carr, a longtime resident of the Brookwood section of the township, said widening the highway will adversely affect her lifestyle and endanger children who cross the roadway to get to and from school. "I don't want them to widen to five lanes," she said. "We'll look like Route 3. They'll be a lot more pollution and traffic." In a Tri-State Transportation Campaign study, truck traffic is predicted to exacerbate New Jersey's already difficult congestion problems, growing 80 percent by 2020. Newton said Sussex County is expected to see its truck traffic double, growing 107 percent through the same period. "Widening the lanes will bring only more truck traffic," said Byram councilwoman Donna Griff. "A lot of the truck traffic that is not coming into town is staying off of Route 206 because it's only one lane." The township wants to explore a scaled-down version of the project that realigns the intersection of Waterloo and Brookwood roads where traffic backs up. Both roads are scheduled to be widened to consist of a right-turn lane and a shared left-turn and through lanes. Work is scheduled to begin next year. The township last met with DOT officials earlier this year to discuss the nearly $15 million expansion. The meeting was not open to the public. "The more that's negotiated, the wider the road seems to get," said Newton. "This is the opposite of what we're seeing everywhere else in the state." Byram received an $80,000 smart growth grant from the Office of State Planning to revitalize its downtown, which led to the adoption of land-use principles that focus development toward the stretch of roadway on Route 206. In public, DOT officials, including Dennis Keck, assistant commissioner for planning and development, have applauded Byram's approach to the road expansion, calling it an example of smart growth and something they would like to see across the Highlands preservation lands. Byram is among six towns in the entirely preserved Highlands region in the Northwest part of the state, where legislation severely restricts building on thousands of acres of land.