Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series on the history of the Route 206 Bypass, the challenges, setbacks and what lies ahead.
It was not merely a suburban expansion that made it necessary to develop a better way to bust the congestion that fills Route 206 daily.
It was an explosion, “a virtual tidal wave of economic and demographic decentralization that dominated the 31-county Tri-State Region during the second half of the 20th century.”
That is the assessment of Dean James W. Hughes and professor Joseph Seneca of Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy in their 2004 study called, “The beginning of the end of sprawl?’’
“The major dynamics that led to these changes were five decades of large-scale residential suburbanization, four decades of large-scale retail decentralization, and two decades of large-scale office and service industry,” the study concluded.
It was, however, that tidal wave of development that produced an opposite reaction signified by the concept of “smart growth” that led to the reduced scope of the current Route 206 bypass. Smart growth calls for constraints on construction based on the availability of sewer and water lines, roads and less need to turn vacant land into building,
The result of the building boom for Hillsborough and its neighbor Montgomery was that Route 206, a single-lane state highway once seen as a major north-south route through largely rural Somerset County, had become in short order what it is today: A nerve-jangling stretch of clogged roadway that leaves thousands of drivers sitting at an endless string of traffic signals; a strip of commerce surrounded by the residential subdivisions that fuel the need for shops, offices and restaurants.
The benign term for what was developed in this era—suburban activity centers—masks the real impact identified by Hughes and Seneca: Between 1969 and 1990, population in suburban New Jersey increased by 16.6 percent, or 608,654 people; from 1980 to 2000, the amount off office space in northern and central New Jersey had grew from 25 million square feet to 170 million square feet; an overbuilt retail mall sector became even more overbuilt, with power centers" anchored by “big-box" stores and “category killers."
In that era, more people, homes and businesses meant more roads. The big interstates—80, 78 and 287—were completed and dozens of county and local roads widened, signalized and altered to serve the needs of growth.
During that time, a plan surfaced to extend I-95 along a path from Trenton through Montgomery and Hillsborough to connect with I-287 in Piscataway.
This was the “Somerset Freeway,” and it soon ran into local opposition, some statewide resistance and a new factor—cost constraints. In 1980, Gov. Brendan Byrne killed the project, and in 1983, Congress removed it from the federal highway list.
Into that mix was born the Route 206 bypass. In 1974, the Route 206 bypass was larger and longer than what is being built in 2012.
But both Hillsborough and Montgomery at that time were communities that remained largely rural. Hillsborough had about 12,000 residents and Montgomery, 6,350, and resistance grew to the thought of plowing up farmland for highways. Population in each town today is roughly three times larger.
That was an important change, according to Gary Toth, a former state transportation planner, who worked on many of the region’s key highway plans, and wrote a case study of the Route 206 bypass.
In 1976, Toth was assigned the responsibility for overseeing the preparation of an environmental impact statement for the Route 206 corridor, Somerville to Princeton, which included the original Hillsborough bypass.
“When NJDOT began preparations to build the roadway in 2000, the land development and traffic patterns in the area had changed, as had conventional wisdom and state policies related to 'smart growth,'" Toth wrote.
With a lead taken by Montgomery Mayor Louise Wilson the state transportation department and other state leaders were engaged to reconsider the scope of the bypass, Toth said.
Transportation staff suggested some ways to reduce the impact of the project—dropping the design speed of the roadway and reducing the number of lanes from four to two, Toth’s case study said.
But Wilson proposed the most significant change, he said.
She proposed rerouting the southern terminus of the project to reduce traffic impact on the town, he said.
The new alignment, Toth said, “eliminated two bridges and a cloverleaf interchange, avoided bisecting a neighborhood in a manner that isolated affordable housing, reduced the impact on the environment and local farmland, and obviated the need for NJDOT to purchase additional right-of-way.”
The result was a project that was less expensive, with less impact on local traffic, neighborhoods, habitat and farmland, Toth said.
Today, the Route 206 bypass project is one of several under construction or planned in Hillsborough and Montgomery to ease travel along the crowded road.
Among the projects:
- An extension of Brown Avenue to connect Roycefield Road to Route 206 to serve as an alternative to Dukes Parkway West.
- Replacement of the CSX bridge at Route 206 just south of Mountain View Road, where the bypass will reconnect with old Route 206. This project also includes a slight realignment of Route 206 and a new T-intersection with Route 601.
- Construction of “gateways” for Hillsborough and Montgomery between the entry of the 206 bypass at Mountain View Road, and the CSX bridge replacement.
- Replacement of the Route 206 bridge at Crusers Brook in Montgomery.
- Extension of Route 518 in Montgomery to Route 206, via Orchard Road, which includes construction of a new bridge over Bedens Brook.
- The state is also examining long-range plans to provide public transit options across the region, including redeveloping the West Trenton Line that could have stations in Hillsborough and Belle Mead and the extension of passenger rail service to Flemington.