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Pedestrian plaza off the table in Metuchen; new proposal will not close New Street, officials said

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METUCHEN – North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority officials have gone back to the drawing board to figure out what is best for the intersection of Main Street and New Street/Hillside Avenue.

This time, a proposal will not include “the closure of New Street or result in significant parking loss on Main Street, but incorporates some of the most common safety suggestions made throughout this process,” Mayor Jonathan Busch said.

The mayor said “after a thorough and thoughtful review of all public comments, discussions with council members and input from emergency service professionals, we have determined that neither of the alternatives presented by North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA) is right for our community at this time.”

“Many of you expressed varying concerns with one or both alternatives presented by the NJTPA,” he said. “Most emphasized the importance of, as one resident described ‘traffic calming measures along Main Street and in all of Metuchen for that matter.’ As another resident wrote, many of you are ‘all for additional safety, better pedestrian lighting, painted streets and other support.’ ”

On Sept. 20, borough officials joined representatives from NJTPA; Michael Baker International, engineering and consulting firm based in Pittsburgh; and Middlesex County for a second virtual public information center meeting to inform local residents, officials and businesses of the safety improvement project along Main Street between Talmadge and Brunswick avenues. The first meeting was held in October 2020.

The main focus of the second meeting was the intersection of Main Street and New Street/Hillside Avenue. The intersection has seen nine pedestrian strikes from 2014-19 and numerous near-strikes. Representatives presented two alternatives.

Alternative One included leaving New Street between Main and Pearl streets as one lane of traffic. In June 2020, borough officials approved a business revitalization strategy, which closed the one side of the street from Friday to Sunday for outdoor dining due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In November, officials extended the closure to the entire week.

Alternative Two proposed to close New Street from Main Street to Pearl Street and create a pedestrian plaza. New Street from Pearl Street to Lake Avenue will remain two lanes of traffic. The alternative included a new traffic signal, curb extensions, sidewalk extension from Main Street across New Street and a future pedestrian plaza, which could provide opportunities for on-street parking adjacent to Pearl Street, officials said.

Busch said as they move forward it’s important to move forward respectfully. He said during the process some “discussions, especially on social media, devolved into cynical assumptions about the motives of our own neighbors.

“The right thing to do is to have respectful dialogue about complicated policy issues like this one and move forward after careful consideration,” he said. “If we all agree to do that, our borough will come out ahead.”

In January 2018, borough officials announced the receipt of a $9.3 million grant from the NJTPA to the County of Middlesex.

The grant for the project is through the NJTPA’s fiscal year 2017-18 local safety program, which is federally funded in conjunction with the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT). It is funded through the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Safety Improvements Program, which advances safety improvements on county and local roadways.

The funds will be used to support Metuchen’s efforts to improve public safety, pedestrian safety, traffic signals and eliminate trucks from striking the Main Street railroad bridge, which is overseen by Amtrak, NJ Transit, the county and the borough.

The grant includes funding a little over $1 million for design and $8.4 million for construction and construction inspection services, according to Christine Mittman, manager of safety programs for local project development at NJTPA.

The approved project will cover a 1.1-mile stretch of Main Street and is one of 14 throughout the state, but the only one approved in Middlesex County.

Main Street, also known as Route 531, serves as the borough’s downtown commercial business area. It is one of the main arteries feeding traffic in and out of the borough. The corridor sees significant pedestrian traffic and includes a NJ Transit rail station.

Mittman said the Main Street corridor in Metuchen falls within NJTPA’s high crash screening lists, ranking 13th in the county. The intersection of Main Street and Amboy Avenue is ranked ninth on the list of high-crash pedestrian intersections in the county.

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