DOT to drop speed limit 10 mph on Bethlehem highway

Cherry Ave. Extension on Tuesday, Dec. 12 near New Scotland Rd. in Slingerlands, New York. Photo: Tyler A. McNeil/The Upstate Courier

SLINGERLANDS — If unchecked, a Slingerlands father worries that tragedy could strike nearby.

Dan Conway, 52, lives on McCormack Road around the corner from Cherry Avenue Extension, a four-lane divided highway that stretches roughly a mile from Kenwood Avenue to a roundabout near Price Chopper Plaza. The speed limit is 55 mph.

After 16-year-old Brittany Knight was killed on the intersection of Bridge Avenue and Interstate 787 in Cohoes two years ago, Conway began to question if the same could happen close to home. In communication with the state Department of Transportation and the town, he started to advocate for pedestrian-friendly measures on Cherry Avenue Extension.

“I had kids in single digits, young teenagers, and I was like, ‘Jesus, this is gonna be a problem,” said Conway. “This could be a problem here.”

One of Conway’s initiatives recently got an OK from the Bethlehem Town Board. On Wednesday, Council members unanimously approved plans to request a 45 mph speed limit from NYSDOT.

A spokesperson for NYSDOT’s regional office said the department will approve the request on a one-year trial basis after Bethlehem submits a speed management plan.

Signage is expected in several months.

Per the NYSDOT Highway Design Manual, Cherry Avenue Extension’s “maximum functional” design speed is already 45 mph despite current signage. 

The highway has the greatest speed limit among neighboring roads. New Scotland Road’s limit is at 35 mph, and the Slingerlands Bypass, another four-lane divided highway nearby, 45 mph.

“So for consistency and to make it a better, safer road, we thought 10 miles is a good measure to take,” Robert Leslie, Bethlehem director of Planning, told Upstate Courier.

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When it was completed in the 1970s, Cherry Avenue Extension was meant to connect to the Delmar Bypass, a system that never came to be.

Instead, dense residential properties now line the proposed bypass path. Once surrounded by undeveloped land, the Cherry Avenue area became increasingly populated throughout the last 20 years.

The road isn’t designed to accommodate pedestrians, but a number of residents walk, cycle, and run on its shoulder during warmer months to the nearby Albany County Rail Trail.

Some also worry about that the acceleration and deceleration lanes for McCormack Road are too short to safely handle incoming traffic.  

“It’s really only a matter of time before someone gets killed there,” said Jennifer DeFranco, a Slingerlands resident, during the Wednesday meeting.

With mixed-use development in the works on New Scotland Road, town officials expect more vehicles on the road to come. About 17,000 vehicles travel down Cherry Avenue Extension per day.

Additionally, the town is looking to accommodate increasing foot traffic, possibly connecting Cherry Avenue Extension to the Albany County Rail Trail.

The town’s Planning Department hopes to explore further concerns with both the highway and New Scotland Road through a joint transportation study. Currently, Bethlehem eyes a chunk of funding from the Capital Region Transportation Committee’s Community and Transportation Linkage Planning Program.

The total cost would be $75,000, divided among local and federal funds managed by the CDTC.

Should Bethlehem’s proposal woo the CDTC, the town expects a study to begin fall of next year. The committee will reveal awardees — a minimum of three — come March.

“I think it’s a good first step,” said Conway. “My understanding of the study is that it’s a competitive process so we don’t win, we don’t get the grant money, and I don’t know where it goes.”

Regardless of the study, Conway believes some less pricey steps like a gravel pedestrian path on the highway right-of-way could be completed within a year. Whether or not such a path could be American Disability Act-compliant is still in question.

He first sent suggestions to NYSDOT in February 2017. In a letter sent to Conway eight months later, Traffic Engineer Mark Pyskadlo said there was little need for adjustments based on the road’s “relatively good” safety record.

Investigation findings indicated strong speed limit compliance among drivers (85 percent) and zilch pedestrian activity. Investigators surveyed the highway for pedestrians during a three-hour field study.

NYSDOT also surveyed accident history. Between 2012 and February last year, 52 percent of reported accidents around the corridor involved animals or other vehicles. No accidents were attributed to speed.

“National studies and past experience has proven that a reduction of the regulatory speed will have little to no impact on the actual operating speeds of most motorists,” Pyskadlo stated.

Discontent with the initial response, Conway in April petitioned for NYSDOT to lower the speed limit, install a barricaded pedestrian path, and redesign the McCormack Road intersection. The petition had 206 signatures at press time.

By July, the Slingerlands resident received another letter from the department. This time, it had a different conclusion: with town approval, find out if speed reduction is necessary by changing the limit to 45 mph for one year.

With project funding highly competitive throughout the state, Conway’s other requests are tougher to satisfy, Frank Bonafide, regional planning & program manager, stated in the letter.

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