BETHLEHEM — Town Board members approved two controversial items during their final meeting of the year on Wednesday, Dec. 13.
One, a much discussed and long awaited open spaces conservation plan, was approved without much discussion as board members have become intimately familiar with the proposal over the previous year. The plan, as has been reported, sets out a series of objective criteria to help town officials decide when to pursue the preservation of a piece of available land in town, as well as the tools available to do so.
After months of back and forth between the town and concerned residents, none of the residents who spoke at the public comment period preceding the vote voiced opposition to the final plan. The resolution to accept the plan and implement use of the criteria was passed unanimously, and with enthusiasm.
“Town staff, in partnership with the Conservation Easement Review Board, has worked hard this year to research and develop several robust tools to add to the Town’s ‘conservation toolbox,’ with the intent to balance future consumption of land for development with the conservation of land for its open space value,” said Karen Shaw, who will remain in her position as the open space coordinator at the Planning Department.
“With this open space plan in place, the town now has data-driven conservation values maps, a 25-point conservation criteria list, and a GIS-based conservation analysis tool,” she said, “that will inform town staff and boards, including the Conservation Easement Review Board and the Planning Board, so that they can more effectively make decisions regarding open space values and priorities when conservation opportunities arise.”
The other agenda item, which has received more vocal opposition in recent weeks than the open spaces plan, was a resolution to move ahead with the idea of implementing a road diet on Delaware Avenue between Elsmere Avenue and the Normanskill Bridge.
Opponents of the plan argued that it elevates bicyclists over drivers, questioned a study that found it would add 50 seconds of travel time for commuters, and worried that potentially diverted traffic would negatively impact businesses along that corridor.
Proponents consistently pointed to increased safety and said they felt that the project would have a positive economic impact on businesses, as they would be easier to not only walk and bike to, but also improve access by cars from the opposite side of the street. Currently, many argued, left hand turns are too dangerous to make across two lanes of traffic traveling at 40 miles per hour.
The plan would reduce the lanes of traffic to one in each direction, with a central left-hand turn lane. It would add a bicycle path and install additional crosswalk safety features. Details of the project are far from finalized, said Rob Leslie, the town’s planning director, allowing more time for public input and to address specific concerns.
If implemented, the project would make that portion of Delaware Avenue essentially a “complete street,” hospitable to all modes of transportation. And, according to Leslie, studies have shown that road diets increase safety for all users and have been found to enhance economic opportunity. The complete streets initiative, widely promoted as offering improved safety, health, economic, and environmental outcomes, is one that has been championed by a diverse national alliance of supporters, including advocates for senior citizens and the disabled.
The Complete Street Act, which was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2011, actually requires local governments “ to consider the convenience and mobility of all users when developing transportation projects that receive state and federal funding.” The resolution under consideration would encourage the New York state Department of Transportation, which owns the road, to consider implementing the project when it repaves the roadway sometime in the next few years, as well as give the town’s Planning Department the go-ahead to seek out funding for those parts of the project that would not be funded by the state.
Both of the newly elected incoming town board members commented on the proposal.
Democrat Maureen Cunningham spoke in favor of the road diet, as well as the open space plan. Of Delaware Avenue, she said, “I do think it’s the infrastructure of the past and I think we need to be forward-thinking. We, as a town board, need to ensure that the businesses continue to thrive in this town and so I’m in support of the road diet, on the condition that we continue to put economic revitalization as one of our priorities, along with safety.”
Incoming Republican Jim Foster, however, had concerns. “Don’t try and be something that you’re not,” he said. “I think, maybe, although road diets are certainly a great thing in many communities and many applications, perhaps Delaware Avenue is not one of those instances in which this is appropriate.”
Foster said DOT studies around the country have shown that road diets are not necessarily advisable on roads that carry more than 15,000 cars a day. “There are about 18,300 road trips on Delaware Avenue,” he said. “What that tells me is that the primary use of Delaware Avenue, as much as we might want it to be this quaint little main street through Bethlehem that links the east and the west, it’s primarily a corridor through which vehicles and commuters travel.”
Reluctant to believe any lost business caused by vehicles taking different routes to avoid increased travel times would be balanced by increased foot and bicycle traffic, Foster said, “I’m concerned about the businesses on that corridor just as much as I’m concerned about safety and I just think we need to make sure that we’re considering all these factors before we proceed.”
Of the 18 people who spoke on the topic that night, 11 were in favor, six were opposed and one said she wasn’t sure there weren’t better options.
One supporter, a resident of Albany, said he was speaking to the board “from the future.” Martin Daley, a planner at the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, lives two blocks from Madison Avenue where a similar road diet was recently implemented. Working with concerned businesses, he said, a compromise was reached that satisfied their concerns, and added, “Since then, we’ve seen some significant investment in Madison Avenue. We certainly haven’t seen a drop in traffic.”
Tim Talmadge, who lives and works along the Delaware Avenue corridor, questioned the sense of including a dedicated bike path with no connections on either end. He also said he felt slowing traffic would negatively affect his chiropractic practice.
Of 35 comments emailed to the town, 22 were in favor of the full road diet and 13 were completely opposed to the proposal or skeptical about certain aspects. Leslie included those comments, along with responses, in the agenda packet available on the town’s website.
After a brief conversation, board members passed the resolution unanimously.
“To me, what we’re really talking about,” said Supervisor-elect David VanLuven, “Is Delaware Avenue a bypass corridor to move cars through as quickly as possible … or is it part of a neighborhood like the rest of Delaware Avenue is?”