FLEMINGTON, NJ – Roundabouts are coming to Hunterdon. Lots of ‘em. That’s the message from Tom Mathews, the Hunterdon County engineer in charge of roads and bridges.
The revelation came as the debate over installing a roundabout at the intersection of Routes 523 and 629 in Readington heats up.
The county’s plan for a Route 523 roundabout goes back to a safety study that began in 2015, Mathews said at last week’s Freeholder meeting. The study began as a way to improve safety at the intersection.
“We looked at a four-way stop, we looked at a traffic signal, we looked at a roundabout,” Mathews said. But the intersection isn’t suitable for an all-way stop, he said.
“A traffic signal is not a preferred alternative,” Mathews added. “A roundabout is a proven safety countermeasure.”
Mathews explained that a roundabout and a traffic circle are two very different things. A circle, he said, is designed for low volume and high speeds. A roundabout is designed for high volume and low speeds, typically 20 to 30 miles per hour. And, “Once you are in the roundabout, you have the right of way.”
“A roundabout will reduce fatalities at an intersection, proven, at 89 percent,” Mathews told the Freeholders and resident David Owen, who is part of a group opposing the plan.
Mathews also said that roundabouts installed in intersections with “Severe crashes, these are ones with injuries ... will reduce those crashes – proven, 71 percent. There is no other countermeasure that will do that.” They also make the road safer for pedestrians and cyclists, he said.
The county began considering a roundabout in Readington in 2016. But before any action could be taken, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, “Came to us, looking (to build) safety improvements, especially for roundabouts at intersections,” Mathews said.
“Now, NJTPA is the lead on this project, the county is just a sponsor.” The project is now in the “concept phase,” he explained, and engineering on the project has not begun.
Because roundabouts are “proven – and I have to stress that it is a proven – countermeasure – it is 100 percent refundable from the federal government,” Mathews said.
Most seem to agree that the Route 523 and 629 intersection can be improved. It’s had 47 crashes in the last four years, Mathews said, with 20 that resulted in “serious injury. So that’s the need.” The cause? “Constant high speed through the area,” he said.
Owen is a member of Readington Citizens for Roundabout Alternatives, who seek another solution for the intersection. He noted that Pleasant Run Stream runs through the proposed project and is awaiting C-1 designation – the state’s highest protection for trout producing streams – and that, “we expect it by the end of the year.”
Owens doesn’t dispute the speed issue. He said that in 2017, 40 mph speed limit signs were installed near the intersection and, “In that year the accidents dropped to seven. So it went down by 50 percent because of the speed reduction.”
Mathews’ claim that roundabouts create accident reduction is “just not true,” Owens said.
“They reduce the number of fatal accidents. They increase the number of regular accidents. There’s never been a fatal accident at this intersection, thank God.”
The Readington Township Committee has unanimously passed a resolution asking that alternatives to the roundabout be explored. NJTPA held a public information session on the plan in April that was “well-attended,” Mathews said, and another is planned, “probably this spring.”
Often, to qualify for federal funding “you need the local municipality to have ‘buy-in’ ” for the plan, Mathews said, but, “ ‘Not in this case,’ ” he said NJTPA told him. “All we need is county ‘buy-in’ for this project to move forward.” The reason, Mathews said, is that in NJTPA’s experience and throughout the northeast, there are a lot of “people not wanting roundabouts.”
“Nobody has ever proposed a roundabout in the northeast without opposition,” he said.
The scenario obviously made Freeholder Susan Soloway uncomfortable. She said she is “vehemently against coming in as a county” and endorsing a project the township opposes so strongly.
“A roundabout is a gamechanger,” Mathews said. “This is going to be the first one that we build in Hunterdon County. It’s not going to be the last. This is the direction Hunterdon County, and the federal government, and NJDOT is going in.”
The facts are that, “Traffic signals don’t keep traffic moving … so much so that there is another federal initiative to remove traffic signals (and replace them) with roundabouts,” he said. “That’s the direction we’re going in.”
Freeholder John Lanza said he’d like roundabout objectors to meet with NJTPA “before we get something back here for final approval.” Freeholder Matt Holt suggested township officials and concerned residents meet privately with NJTPA staff in Newark because, “It allows for a more concise, better dialog” and might reveal “why options may not work”
Mathews said that part of the blame for the common distaste for roundabouts rests with public officials. “We have to do a better job of educating the public,” he said.