Ithaca, N.Y. — Local officials released a set of 23 ideas today for improving truck safety on Ithaca’s hills after the fatal crash at Simeon’s.
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Some have already been implemented; some were recommended against; and others are still being studied.
We wanted to get a better context for the proposals, so we spoke with Fernando de Aragon, of the Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council. A public meeting will be held at Ithaca Town Hall to present the ideas to the public and get input further on Jan. 15 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Here are our five key takeaways from talking with de Aragon:
1 — A change that may have prevented the Simeon’s crash is going to happen
Perhaps the simplest yet most effective idea is to steer truckers coming into the city to use the much gentler Route 13 rather than the suddenly steep Route 366.
de Aragon notes that Route 366 appears to offer a more direct route into the city — and, in a way, it does. That’s not a problem for the vast majority of truck drivers in the area, de Aragaon said, because the vast majority work in Tompkins County and already know that Route 13 is a safer way to go.
“Route 13 is by far the safest, most ample approach for a truck,” de Aragon said. “There’s lots of room at the bottom; there’s room to stop; if there’s some problem you can just down-shift.”
The problem is the smaller percentage of out-of-town drivers — like Viacheslav Grychanyi, of Washington State, who drove the truck that hit Simeon’s — according to de Aragon. Even if well-intentioned, these drivers have no way of really knowing that Route 13 is a safer way into the city than Route 366.
However, this should change with the new plans being spearheaded by the Department of Transportation, according to de Aragon. Officials will install a sign clearly directing truck traffic coming into the city from the Northeast to use Route 13 rather than Route 366.
Other measures may include altering GPS and other information systems to suggest that truckers use Route 13.
2 — One idea could send more trucks through quiet Dryden
A more complicated question, according to de Aragon, is what to do with truck traffic reaching the town of Richford. (Trucks from Binghamton or Interstate 81 might come up this way, for instance.)
“Richford is a sort of decision point,” de Aragon explained.
Right now, trucks can take Route 79 going west. That would take them directly into the city — but via the same East Hill road that becomes Route 366. Officials see this as problematic; it ultimately leads truckers down the same dangerous road that has led to several truck crashes in Ithaca.
The problem is that the alternative isn’t clear, either. One idea is to force truckers on a detour that would keep them on Route 38 before connecting them with Route 13, which (as mentioned above) is generally considered a safer entranceway to the city.
The difficulty here is that this would mean an additional 30 trucks or so would pass through the village of Dryden every day. The most recent data, from 2007, shows that about 550 trucks “with 3 axels or more” already pass through the village daily.
“That will be an issue that needs to be considered,” de Aragon said. “Dryden already has a fair amount of truck traffic because of Route 13.”
“It’s not going to be done without a process.”
3 — It’ll be difficult to create a “physical restraint” for the Commons that isn’t disruptive
One of the more out-of-the-box solutions being looked at by officials is the installation of some sort of physical barrier at the base of the hill.
“We don’t know what that would look like,” de Aragon says. “We have a very constrained area … it’s difficult to implement in a place like downtown.”
Ideas for this kind of fix include bollards, some sort of sand or water barriers, or the kinds of protective barriers placed in front of federal buildings in Washington, D.C. But what this even could look like for downtown Ithaca, de Aragon said, is far from clear.
“The bigger the truck, the bigger the speeds you can expect, the bulkier the attenuator (barrier) is going to be have to be,” de Aragon says. “You’re going to need some mass to contain all that energy. How do you do that without building a huge wall across the Commons (which I don’t think anyone wants)?”
de Aragon said officials are suggesting a study be done to look at the “attenuator” in conjunction with traffic patterns in that area. “Our concrete suggestion is to study it,” he says.
4 — Creating a truck pull-off on Route 79 could happen, but may be difficult
It’s generally recognized that Route 96B, via South Hill, provides a safer path for trucks than Route 79, which leads down from East Hill. One of the reasons for this is that there’s an excellent truck pull-off station for trucks on Route 96 — “it’s a bit of a Cadillac effort,” de Aragon joked.
So shouldn’t officials just add a truck pull-off on Route 79 as well? That’s a simple solution, right?
Turns out that it’s not that easy. “The problem with 79 is that there’s not a lot of room,” given high development along the road, for a truck pull off, according to de Aragon. “We’ve been looking and there’s not necessarily a lot of good places to put it.”
Still, de Aragon said that the Department of Transportation has a concept to explore with a “wide shoulder pull off” for Route 79. “There’s a potential strategy that has a pretty good opportunity to find a space,” he said.
5 — Officials are seeking an open, transparent process
“We’ve been putting out a wide call to the public,” de Aragon says. “A lot of people gave a lot of ideas.”
de Aragon and other city officials urged interested members of the public to attend the upcoming meeting on Jan. 15.