Artist rendering of the proposed skyway.
The weather in the month of March was not the only phenomenon that came in like a lion, the Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC) also roared into Albany like a nor’easter. The CDTC finally released the long-awaited study on the future of Interstate 787. The proposal for turning the north-bound Clinton Avenue exit off of I-787 into a Skyway Park was the subject of a CDTC public workshop on March 8. The CDTC held a meeting at the University of Albany’s Uptown Campus on how to improve the stretch of Washington Avenue between Brevator Street and Interchange 2 of Interstate 90. It looks like the divide between planning highway use solely for the benefit of vehicles over and above the safety and convenience of pedestrians and bicyclists is going to be closed in the Albany area.
Before I get into some of the particulars of these developments, I need to give a huge shoutout to Bill N. and Claire P. who started a group about eight years ago that they called Reclaim Our Waterfront (ROW). ROW was established with an eye toward opening up access to the Hudson River from Albany’s North End, South End, and downtown. ROW held dozens of meetings over the years, met with local and state officials, was the first group to suggest turning the underused ramp to Clinton Avenue into a skyway, had specs drawn up for connecting our many bike paths to each other to make one unified trail and advocated for the “boulevardizing” of I-787. I truly believe, without the impetus and stubbornness of Bill, Claire, and ROW, the skyway and bike path connector plans would never have reached the point where they are at now – the actual funding and implementation of these proposals.
The I-787/Hudson Waterfront Corridor Study Draft Final Report was released in early March. The study area is 9 miles long and extends from Exit 2 (Port of Albany) and the bane of Ezra Prentice Homes residents for the 1600-plus diesel-engine trucks that drive through Ezra on a daily basis, to Interchange 9 (NY Route 7). The heaviest traffic days see almost 90,000 vehicles a day on I-787. The estimated life of the highway is 20 years, or to the year 2035. The “community sentiment” gleaned from the public meetings held a few years ago on the future of I-787 was that the community wanted a transformational plan that would both reduce the financial burden to maintain the road while also creating a facility that is better integrated with the neighborhood fabric. In other words, an at-grade roadway with pedestrian crossings to provide access to the Hudson River.
The long-term outlook for I-787 is that a plan on what it will look like in 2035 needs to be in place in the very near future because engineering studies and identifying funding sources need to be undertaken years before the highway’s life comes to an end. A few of the questions that will have to be answered before 2035 include: Will I-787 stay as it is? Will it have some sections, say between Clinton Avenue and the CP Rail line underpass in downtown Albany, at-grade, instead of raised? Will the South Mall Expressway be reconfigured to at-grade if, and when, the replacement of the Dunn Memorial Bridge happens?
In the short term, some projects related to I-787 are either already underway or soon to be in development. These include: Green Island – Hudson Avenue bike/ped safety improvements, Watervliet bike path along NY 32 connecting the Mohawk-Hudson Bike Trail, Menands bike/ped connector with a bike/ped bridge over I-787 and the Albany South End Bikeway link. And, most exciting of all for Albany’s Arbor Hill community in filling the gap between downtown and the warehouse district – the Albany Skyway project.
Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced $3.1 million in funding for the project. The proposal is to convert the underused exit ramp at Quay Street, heading north, where the ramp merges with the southbound ramp off of I-787 to Clinton Avenue into a linear park, about a half-mile long. The park will be vehicle-free and pedestrian/bicyclist friendly. Barriers will be put in place to separate the skyway from the vehicles using I-787. The park will connect the Corning Preserve with downtown. At a public meeting held at the Albany Visitors Center, an overflow crowd was given an overview of the project and then the participants were asked for their suggestions on what they would like to see included in the park.
There is still more study to be done on the skyway before construction starts in the fall of 2019. Issues to be considered include: assessing the structure’s condition, what the traffic pattern change will have to be for the 4,000 vehicles a day that use that exit, who will maintain the park once it is completed and identifying funding sources to pay for the full project. In addition to being a connector to the riverfront, supporters see the skyway as an economic development project. It is estimated that the fiscal impact could be almost $13 million. The Department of Transportation expects the skyway to be completed by late 2020.
While all of this exciting news for the east end of the city of Albany was being announced, the western fringe of the city was also in the news. The CDTC held the first of two public meetings last week on what is being called the Washington Avenue-Patroon Creek corridor. The meeting was to gather input from the residents and UAlbany students on how to make that stretch of Washington Avenue safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. This study is an extension of the action taken two years ago to lower the speed limit along this corridor from 45 mph to 30 mph. The suggestions on how to make the road bike/ped friendly included implementing road diet strategies (see Madison Avenue in Albany and the proposal for Delaware Avenue in Delmar) and adding medians to act as a pedestrian refuge when crossing Washington Avenue.
It is refreshing to see that the safety and convenience of pedestrians and bicyclists are finally being considered by transportation planners. This is a 180-degree turn from the 1950s and ‘60s when roads were designed solely for the ease of movement of motor vehicles and pedestrians be damned. It will fall on all of us, though, to see that these projects are carried through to completion.