Editor’s note: This report was published exclusively in The Jefferson Chronicle DIGEST magazine prior to being made available online. To receive the DIGEST magazine when it is released digitally, subscribe free.
Residents frustrated by long delays at the traffic light by the intersection of Route 15 and Berkshire Valley Road (BVR) may have to wait a few years for a long-term solution. However, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is investigating a short-term solution.
At the invitation of former mayor Russ Felter’s administration, Anthony Sytko, regional manager for the DOT, met with the town council on January 16 to discuss concerns regarding the intersection. Sytko is the DOT’s community liaison for Morris, Sussex, Bergen, Passaic, and Warren counties.
A Lake Hopatcong resident complained that he recently had to wait 12 minutes at the intersection, which he deemed unacceptable. He asserted that Espanong Road, previously a viable alternate route, is now used more frequently by commuters from other towns as a detour around traffic jams on Route 15 South. In his opinion, the change in the timing of the light made matters worse, not better.
What’s the Plan?
Sytko explained that the Route 15/BVR project is in the preliminary engineering stage (middle phase). The plan is to widen the section of Berkshire Valley Road between Route 15 North and South, creating two left turn lanes onto 15 South and a through lane to lower Berkshire Valley Road.
In addition, the exit from Route 15 North onto upper BVR by Lindeken Farms will be redesigned to prevent the traffic backup that occurs for people traveling across to lower Berkshire Valley Road and those turning left onto Route 15 South.
The project will go to the final design phase by the end of 2019 and will be bid out for construction by 2021. Sytko told the council, “Final design phase is when the right of way acquisition takes place, and that is the longest part of any given project. We allow for 18-24 months because of the negotiations that have to take place.” The right of way land access is essential to the project plan, but details of the required acquisition have not yet been released.
Council Spoke Up for Residents
Council member Melissa Senatore explained that the most significant problem currently facing residents is the timing of the traffic light. She questioned whether there are different timings depending on the time of the day, noting that there are occasions when the light does not change despite the presence of a car waiting to turn from BVR onto Route 15 South. Although Sytko did not know how the detection is set up, he can investigate it.
Council member Jay Dunham voiced frustration with the construction project delay, echoing residents’ concern for a solution. He asserted that the same plan was presented to the town five years ago and asked whether the lack of money in the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), which finances new highway and transit projects, contributed to the delay of this project.
When the TTF’s coffers ran dry, former Governor Chris Christie signed a bill in October 2016 raising the gas tax 23 cents a gallon along with other fuel tax increases. The state’s constitution was also amended by voter approval in November 2016 to stipulate that all revenue from motor fuel taxes be used for transportation projects. The proceeds of these taxes infused funds into the TTF budget. The TTF Act was then amended and approved to issue up to $12 billion in transportation program bonds between 2017 and 2024, which may explain why this project has regained traction.
Sytko has been with the DOT for seven years, but in his current role for only 18 months. He could not address why the project was delayed in the past.
Dunham and council vice president Kim Finnegan pointed out that the Route 15/BVR intersection is a major site of traffic accidents. Finnegan stated that changing the timing of the light only changed where the accidents happen. Ed Mangold, deputy coordinator of Jefferson’s Office of Emergency Management, inquired why previously requested traffic interrupters have not been received. (Traffic interrupters control the light and the traffic flow to allow emergency vehicles to pass safely.) Sytko promised to investigate the status of traffic interrupters with his team.
Mayor Eric Wilsusen also expressed his concern regarding the bottleneck of traffic that occurs at northbound Route 15 and BVR where three lanes merge into two. He questioned why the road does not have three lanes all the way up to the QuickChek instead of the three-to-two pattern that alternates from Wharton through Lake Shawnee. Sytko stated that adding a lane is not under consideration by the DOT at this time.
Council member Robert Birmingham observed that there are only two major thoroughfares out of Jefferson: Route 23 and Route 15. Several years ago, a similar traffic backup regularly occurred at the upper end of BVR because there was only one turn lane onto Route 23 South, and the light allowed only a few cars through at each change. The town argued with the DOT for years to create two turn lanes, and was told that it could not be done. After many years of debate, the second turn lane was added and the backup problem was resolved. Birmingham asked why the same could not be done at Route 15 and BVR.
Sytko explained that there is rarely a simple solution. A delicate balance is required to focus on safety and traffic flow while adhering to state and federal guidelines. He told the council that he will investigate the timing of the light and traffic interrupters with his team and report back. In the meantime, residents’ commuting challenges will continue.