A paved section of the Albany County's Helderberg Hudson Rail Trail recently (officially) opened from Slingerlands to Albany's South End neighborhood. That end point on South Pearl is just about two miles from where the Mohawk-Hudson Hike-Bike Trail picks up along the Albany riverfront.
And that proximity, of course, prompts the idea: Hey, maybe these should be connected in some meaningful way, right?
The question of how that make connection happen is at the center of the Albany Waterfront Connector project. And Thursday night there was a public meeting laying out some of the possible options.
Here's a quick look.
What is it?
There aren't a lot of specifics, yet, but broadly speaking the idea here is to lay out some sort of explicit path that connects the Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail and Mohawk-Hudson Hike-Bike Trail in Albany's South End.
The project could ultimately end up involving the construction of some sort of new bike/walk trail or new amenities for biking on already-existing streets (like bike lanes) or some combination. Planners have broken down the distance between the two trails into three sections, and it's possible that each section could get its own treatment.
The city of Albany is working with Alta Planning + Design on the waterfront connector, a firm that specializes in these sorts projects.
The options (so far)
It's important to note that nothing was presented as a done deal. As mayor Kathy Sheehan said at the start of the meeting at the Howe Branch library: "I really want us to explore all of the possibilities." And she emphasized that at this point the potential ideas shouldn't be ruled out because of cost or complications involving land acquisition.
So, here were the initial options that were floated. There are versions of these photo above in large format.
Section 1: rail trail terminus to Mt. Hope
+ Side path along Pearl Street: This would be a multi-use path built alongside the street. (None of the consultants used this example, but based on the description, we kind of got the idea it would be like the multi-use path along Hackett Boulevard.)
+ Sidewalk and two-way cycle track along South Pearl: In this case cycle track essentially means a two-way bike lane built on the street with some buffer between the bike lane and vehicle traffic.
+ Shared-use path behind Ezra Prentice Homes: This would involve building a multi-use path in a thin strip of space between the train tracks and the Albany Housing Authority's Ezra Prentice Homes. No one ruled this idea out -- again, the consultants emphasized that everything was on the table -- but we got the feeling this option seemed like a long shot because there were three points along the route where this isn't a space between EPH and the train tracks, and there'd have to be some arrangement made with the railroad to get the space.
Section 2: Cherry Hill to near Island Creek Park
+ Shared-use path west: A multi-use path built alongside the street that would run up Pearl and then follow Green Street along the west side of 787.
+ Shared-use path east: A multi-use path built along the street that would run along the east side of 787 next to the railroad tracks. There's a one-way, two-lane thoroughfare there that looks like an on-ramp for 787 (and you can use it for that), but it actually is a street that leads up to Church Street.
Section 3: Church Street to the USS Slater
+ Bike boulevard along Green Street: This option would route bike traffic along Green Street. And while there wouldn't be bike lanes (the diagram depicts sharrows), the planners say there would steps taken to calm traffic along the route to make it comfortable for cyclists.
+ Two-way cycle track along Church Street: Essentially a two-way bike lane along Church Street on the west side of 787.
+ Shared-use path below 787: This would involve constructing a multi-use path that would take advantage of the space below 787 (apparently there's a lot of room there that's not really being used). This seemed like an interesting idea.
+ Shared-use path along Broadway: A multi-use path built along the stretch of Broadway that passes the U-Haul building.
+ Boardwalk along the river: Construct a multi-use path on a boardwalk along the riverfront. (Just a guess on our part, but this option seems unlikely given what we suspect would be a not-small cost and complications.)
There's probably no perfect solution for this project. And some of the tradeoffs and considerations will be the same ones that pop up on any project like this: how much funding is ultimately available, how long it would take to build, what negotiations might need to be made with property owners, and the level of safety and comfort the amenities will provide to cyclists and walkers.
But the most important and interesting consideration/challenge/question might be: How can this project be a benefit for the South End neighborhood and the people who live there?
For example: A route that traces along the east side of 787 would probably be the most direct, and if a multi-use protected is built, could also be most comfortable for cyclists. But that would also mean traveling a path that largely misses much of the residential part of the South End, and could blunt some of the project's benefits in terms of utility for people within the neighborhood -- and even economic gain for neighborhood businesses. (In her opening remarks Thursday, Kathy Sheehan noted that she sees bike infrastructure like this project in part as an economic development tool.)
Based on the Albany Bicycle Coalition t-shirts and the cycling gear in the crowd Thursday, we're guessing many of the people there were coming at this project from more of a cycling perspective. And that's OK. But it will also be important to get local neighborhood perspectives involved, something one of the planners at Alta told us they've been working on.
One other, wider-picture thing: A bike path is fine. Two bike paths is better. But a system of bike paths, connecting within the city of Albany and to its surrounding areas, holds the most potential in helping foster a culture here in which a broad range of people, in a range of places, feel comfortable choosing cycling as a transportation option.
So, in some way, this is just a two-mile bike route. But its significance is greater than that because it helps connect the growing network.
There's another public meeting about this project slated for later this summer, though the date hasn't been set yet -- the planners said it will probably be late June or sometime in July.
There's also a walking tour with planners about the potential options on Saturday, June 11. It's free to attend, though registration is requested.
And the planners are taking comments about the project via its website.
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