The second phase of the Madison Ave Road Diet -- one of the area's most interesting transportation projects -- is set to start this summer, and officials say they hope the bulk of the work will be finished this year.
That timeline was one of the details discussed a during a public meeting about the project Thursday evening at Saint Rose in which the city and project engineers continued to express optimism about the traffic calming plan in the face of skeptical comments and questions from the crowd.
The story of the Madison Ave Road Diet is now almost as long as the road itself. The roots of the project stretch back about 10 years, and public planning for the project started more than two years ago.
In short: The project is a reconfiguration of the stretch of Madison Ave from Allen Street to Lark Street with the goal of "calming" traffic and making the street safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. To that end, the reconfiguration plan includes switching the street from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction with a middle turn lane, along with bike lanes on both sides of the street.
The first segment of the project -- from Allen to Partridge -- was reconfigured last year. The second phase covers Partridge to Lark.
The public discussion over the plan has been passionate at times, with cycling advocates pushing for protected bike lanes (didn't happen) and some residents expressing concerns about traffic backups.
What's in phase two
Phase two of the project will look a lot like phase one. Crews will scrape the street down to its Belgian block paver base and then rebuilt it with new pavement. Then it will be striped in the three lane-with-bike-lanes configuration.
But phase two will also include new traffic and pedestrian signals, and the city will also be doing targeted sidewalk improvements to help the corridor comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Those improvements will include smoothing out uneven sidewalk and making sure the spots where the sidewalk meets a crosswalk have the correct grade and surface.)
The cost of phase two will be roughly $3 million, of which federal and state money will cover most of it. Bill Trudeau, who heads up traffic engineering for the city, said the city will be required to chip in some matching money, but it'd be about 10 percent of that.
The public Q&A portion of Thursday's meeting included a handful of speakers who continued to express skepticism that project will be able to deliver on the promise of safer corridor without creating untenable traffic backups.
One of those speakers was Melanie McCulley, who lives on Madison Ave near the Willett Street end of Washington Park and works from home. She said that section of the street handles not just high flows of regular vehicle traffic, but also frequent deliveries for the restaurants along that stretch. And she said she's worried that reducing the number of lanes will create blockages and possibly hinder ambulances and fire trucks.
"They just don't understand how that area works," she said after the program "I watch it every day, all hours of the day and night. They don't get it."
Other people asked about the degree to which the city is monitoring how well the corridor is -- or is not -- working.
After the meeting, Bill Trudeau said he thought the first phase of the project has worked out "very well" so far based on observations. The city hasn't done any systematic study, yet. "It'd be very unfair at this point. We want to get the entire road [finished] and then get a good, objective review at that point."
Trudeau and the project engineers from Creighton Manning were open about the fact the road diet will mean slower travel times for cars sometimes, and backups in some places.
"We knew that going in, we said that going in. They're not horrible," Trudeau said afterward of the traffic backups. "I think people have to give us the opportunity to put this into effect and have some patience once we put it into effect. Because there's always a growing pain and that growing pain will be for some period of time -- usually a few weeks, maybe a little longer, maybe a little bit less, we're not quite sure. But we certainly think we have the right approach. It's going to take an adjustment. And if we're following that Complete Streets strategy, this it he right thing for this road."
After seeing backups following the introduction of the first phase, Trudeau said the city made adjustments to traffic signals that helped smooth things out. And he said he anticipated it would have to make similar adjustments for phase two.
Not all the public comments were skeptical. One person praised how "relaxed" the new section of the road feels compared to the part that hasn't been reconfigured, yet.
And Lorenz Worden, the president of the Albany Bicycle Coalition, said afterward that the new section feels like "nirvana." "Everybody I know loves it," he said, and added that he hoped the project will serve as a model for other streets.
Do we trust experts?
Zooming out a bit, one of the things that struck us while listening to the back-and-forth between skeptical members of the public and the project engineers Thursday was this question: How much do we collectively trust experts?
As Trudeau said, the city and the engineers it hired have studied the project "exhaustingly." And they say, based on that study and their expertise, that the road diet will significantly increase the safety of the corridor with a relatively small effect on vehicle users. It is literally their job to solve these sorts of problems.
Should we all take those predictions with a grain of salt or two? Sure. Experts get things wrong, too. And the perspectives of people who live in a neighborhood shouldn't be pushed aside just because someone with a consulting contract has come in to assess the situation.
We gotta admit, we're not sure where exactly that balance should be struck. But the city making a good-faith effort to monitor the effects of the road diet, publicly report those findings, and work to make adjustments based on what it's learned could go some way to helping earn the trust of skeptical residents.
Madison from New Scotland to Lark
One other thread from Thursday's meeting: No one seems to be happy about the way traffic is working in the zone that stretches from Albany Med to Washington Park and to Lark Street -- not residents, not people who work there, not cycling advocates, not even the city.
It is, at least in people's perceptions, a mash of backed-up traffic, people speeding through and out of the park, and cars parked where they shouldn't be.
"New Scotland is backed up all the time now," said Melanie McCulley, the Madison Ave resident. "I walk there at least several times a week to go to SEFCU and that area. It's always backed up. It's a problem. Whether that's from [the road diet] or the changes at Albany Med, and there's all that new housing now. We have a problem here. We're too saturated."
Bill Trudeau acknowledge that Madison/New Scotland is one of a few ongoing trouble spots. "And we're not so sure how to fix them because it's roadway capacity -- not so much on Madison, but on New Scotland where it's a much narrower road, the buildings are built out to the property line and there's no way to add capacity and that would be the only way to resolve the problem."
So, looking to the future, it's worth keeping an eye on whether there's some sort of review or initiative focused on trying work through the issues around that spot.
By the way
The slides for Thursday's meeting included a handful of comments about the Madison Ave Road Diet, positive and negative, that had been pulled from the comment thread on the AOA post about this meeting a few weeks back. (This was a surprise to us, too.)
So, if ever you wonder if the people who oversee these sorts of projects are reading comments both here and elsewhere, well, apparently sometimes they do.
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