BETHLEHEM — Would you be willing to add approximately a minute of travel time to your commute for a safer, more pedestrian-friendly Delaware Avenue? That’s the question that was posed by town planners during a second public meeting, held in late September, to gather public feedback on proposed changes to Delaware Avenue, from Elsmere Avenue to the Albany city line.
Working with consultant Creighton Manning Engineering, as well as the Capital District Transportation Committee, the state Department of Transportation and two working town committees, the town has identified the existing conditions along that corridor and developed a handful of alternatives that could improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as for drivers.
Delaware Avenue was widened to four lanes in the early 1960s. At that time, little consideration was given to the impacts on neighborhood livability, as conventional street design was primarily focused on moving cars rather than people. According to planners, there was also an existing assumption that the corridor would remain rural and be used primarily as a through route, serving vehicles traveling at higher speeds. The development of the hamlets of Delmar and Elsmere, however, and corresponding increased demand for frequent left turns, has changed the nature of the roadway.
Re-envisioning that part of Delaware Avenue as more of a community main street has caused the town to look for ways to improve safety for all users, and increase access to other forms of transportation.
Since early this century, a growing number of state and local governments have increasingly rejected outdated street design paradigms in favor of roadways that can safely accommodate all types of travel. The concept, known as “complete streets,” is a policy and design approach that includes bike lanes, sidewalks and room for mass transit. Often it will involve implementing a “road diet,” in which the number of lanes is reduced, along with the speed limit, to make room for a dedicated turning lane, bike lane, buffer medians or better sidewalks.
Complete streets, which are promoted as offering improved safety, health, economic, and environmental outcomes, have attracted a diverse national alliance of supporters, including advocates for senior citizens and the disabled.
At the Town Board meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 11, Mark Sargent, an associate from Creighton Manning, presented board members and town residents with a progress report on the “Delaware Avenue Complete Streets Feasibility Study.”
During a first public meeting in February, residents indicated that their top three priorities for the corridor are traffic calming, access to businesses and non-vehicular access. Following closely behind, safety, corridor beautification and room for bicycles came out well ahead of increased transit, traffic operations for cars, gateway improvements and enhanced liveability.
“There are trade-offs,” said Sargent. “And that’s what this study is all about. Is the community willing to accept the trade-offs, which come down to travel time, quite frankly.”
When developing alternatives, he said, to achieve at least some the goals identified as priorities, some kind of road diet surfaced as the best solution. Of the five options presented during the September public meeting, one was simply doing nothing. Other options were:
Full Road Diet: Reducing traffic to one lane in both directions for the entire length of the corridor, adding a center turning lane and dedicated bike lanes in both directions and a buffer between the roadway and the sidewalk.
Half Corridor Road Diet: Essentially the same as the Full Road Diet, except that it would only extend from Delaware Plaza to the Normanskill Bridge.
1-1-2 Eastbound: The Half Corridor Road Diet + the addition of a middle turn lane between Delaware Plaza and Elsmere Avenue, reducing Delmar-bound traffic to one lane and leaving two lanes for traffic heading into Albany. There would be no bike lanes between the plaza and Elsmere.
Westbound 2-1-1: The Half Corridor Road Diet + the addition of a middle turn lane between Delaware Plaza and Elsmere Avenue, reducing Albany-bound traffic to one lane and leaving two lanes for traffic heading into Delmar. There would be no bike lanes between the plaza and Elsmere.
All diet options also include the addition of signalized pedestrian crossings.
“During peak hours, the corridor will essentially be moving at capacity,” Sargent said of the Full Road Diet option. “So traffic will move more slowly.” He also noted that longer lines at intersections, such as at Delaware Ave. and Elsmere Ave., would occasionally make it more difficult to turn onto side roads such as Herrick Ave. during peak commute hours.
While a majority of responding residents have indicated that they prefer the Full Road Diet option, a significant 30 to 40 percent of respondents entirely oppose or have concerns about the project. One concern that has been raised by residents is why there was no alternative plan to simply improve pedestrian crossings without meddling with traffic lanes. Several doubted that the study was correct about the additional travel and queueing times at intersections, and there is concern that the safety benefit is being overstated.
Any changes to that portion of Delaware Avenue are unlikely to get underway for another few years, as the town intends to piggyback on state-funded repaving of the corridor, which is not immediately expected. The planning study, however, is expected to wrap up by the end of this year.
More information about the project can be found at http://www.delawareavecompletestreets.com/. Questions and comments can be emailed to DelawareAveStudy@cmellp.com; emails sent to this address will go directly to the consultant team, the Town of Bethlehem and the CDTC project manager.