The New Jersey Department of Transportation is a bullying bureaucracy that rides roughshod over the people’s rights. The proliferation of rumble strips generating noise pollution in residential corridors is the latest example of the Department’s disregard for New Jersey’s citizens. The Department’s spokespeople are trained to tell you that this initiative is about saving lives. In fact, it is about money.
Although rumble strips can in some instances decrease the incidence of accidents, the Department is disregarding Federal Highway Administration (FHA) guidelines for implementation, to the great detriment of homeowners. Rumble strips must be deployed only in a manner consistent with FHA specifications and only when a demonstrated safety benefit exceeds the noise pollution harm to property owners in the vicinity.
Rumble strips are only one method of improving safety on certain roads. However, it has become the preferred method of the Department of Transportation, since rumble strip projects are 100% paid for with federal dollars (Federal Highway Administration Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, Section 1508.) In its zeal to spend this federal bonanza, the Department disregards its basic obligation to the public.
My story starts along a scenic stretch of Route 29 in West Amwell, NJ, where I own a home. In June, overnight and without notice, a centerline rumble strip appeared. As my property is situated at a sharp curve in the road, motorists consistently contact the rumble strip as they speed around the bend.
This rumble strip creates constant noise pollution, making our life in the house unbearable and detracting from the environs of the nearby D & R Canal State Park. All projects near the park, including projects by government agencies, are subject to review and permitting by the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission. The DOT filed no permit, disregarding state law. In other words, the work was performed illegally.
I petitioned the Department of Transportation, asking that the rumble strip be removed for a small distance fronting my house. I argued that the Department had not followed the FHA technical guidelines regarding the deployment of rumble strips, public notice, and bicycle and pedestrian safety, that there was no known safety issue on this road, that the rumble strip was installed illegally, and that correction was warranted. An Assistant Commissioner was quite friendly. After agreeing that there was no specific crash history on this road and that the rumble strip was indeed installed without a permit, he advised that the Department would not remove the rumble strip for fear of “setting a precedent,” and that this rumble strip was “consistent” with similar work throughout New Jersey.
The Department does not believe that the rights of homeowners impacted by rumble strip noise pollution should have any bearing on its race to grab federal funding. The notion that the Department is resistant to establishing a precedent of listening to its stakeholders and taking corrective actions when compellingly petitioned is contrary to our fundamental conception of government by the people for the people.
The Department does not care about noise impact on non-motorists. Noise to adjacent residences is specifically cited by federal guidelines (Technical Bulletin T 5040.40 Revision 1) as a factor limiting the application of centerline rumble strips. While the bulletin exhorts that “balance between the safety of motorists…and effects on nearby residents should be considered when installing rumble strips,” the Department affords homeowners no consideration at all.
The Department installs rumble strips with disregard to site suitability. According to the Technical Bulletin, centerline rumble strips are designed primarily to assist distracted drivers and not to address roadway deficiencies. In this instance the curvature of the road results in vehicles off-tracking and contacting the rumble strip. The FHA Technical Bulletin contemplates this and notes that there are locations within a corridor where discontinuing the centerline rumble strip would be appropriate.
The Department ignores the voice of the people. The Technical Bulletin states clearly that agencies should consider public outreach before widespread implementation. In this case, no effort whatsoever was made to notify or engage with the public before the installation, followed by stubborn disregard of petition after the fact.
The Department is blind to the well-being of non-motorist stakeholders. In fact, the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians is compromised by the installation of a centerline rumble strip on a narrow road. Vehicles shifting toward a narrow shoulder increase the risk of lethal contact with bicyclists and pedestrians. A rumble strip project does not qualify for federal funding under the Highway Safety Improvement Program if it adversely affects the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists (23 USC 148), and this law should be enforced. The Department asserts, in this instance, that the shoulder is three feet wide and safe for cyclists, despite being sent photographs of measurements contradicting that claim.
The FHA Technical Bulletin clearly states that agencies should “(i) Consider accommodation of all road users and the potential adverse side effects mentioned in this advisory, (ii) Collaborate with stakeholders, and (iii) Modify the design and application of rumbles to the extent the agency considers appropriate to meet the safety goal.” In its quest for federal cash, all of this advice was utterly disregarded by the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation should be fully accountable to its stakeholders. In the case of all improvements, it must follow the guidelines of the Federal Highway Administration, whose dollars it is so eagerly spending. It must follow the law of the land, including its obligations to other state agencies, such as the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission. Expedience must never trump the obligation of government to answer to the people.