Image courtesy Nick Lambrou

ITHACA, N.Y. — For anyone on West Hill’s listserve, the messages have been coming in droves. There’s a road reconstruction project coming for a 1,080 foot length of the 1000 Block of West State/Martin Luther King Jr. Street corridor over Inlet Island. People are, well…a bit upset.

“This ‘re-design’ is the most ill-conceived imaginable.  Whoever thought it up has absolutely no idea what they are doing.”

“Well I can’t think of a sadder civil action than this.”

“The city responds to a vocal lobby that despises cars and the people who drive them. And this lobby and its supporters want us to apologize for not knowing in advance what the BPW planned to present to Common Council, and in fact to feel guilty about how we live our lives.”

“Clearly, the invested biking enthusiasts had their hands in pushing for a design not with one but with two biking lanes on the bridge (of all places), one in each direction.”

“{I}t seems this town needs about 30 years to do anything sensible for cyclists and pedestrians, even, apparently when there are children at stake.”

The two sides have sorted themselves out and sniped at each other accordingly. In the one corner is the group that believes their commutes are being thrown into disarray by pedestrians and bicyclists that are being over-accommodated at the expense of four-wheeled users. In the other corner are bicyclists and advocates who claim their needs are being ignored and their lives put at risk by West Hillers looking to shave two minutes off their commute. In the middle are two harried common councilors (First Ward Representative Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal) and city transportation engineer Tim Logue.

Logue paused for a moment when asked if he was surprised by the pushback. “In some ways, yes, in some ways no. Some of the comments we are hearing now are similar to the comments we heard during the public outreach, {such as} the traffic signal at the bottom of the hill. But it’s been a lot of comments in a short period of time, so that’s a little surprising…I think the thing I’m trying to do right now is listen to all the concerns and take them in. There’s a lot of stuff flying around in a short amount of time. A lot of it’s on the the West Hill listserve, some of it’s not even getting to me.”

With all due respect to West Hill residents, it’s only fair to point out the Voice did report on the project during its public input phase back in April. The Ithaca Times covered it as well. There were meetings in 2013, 2015, 2016 and this past spring. However, many West Hill residents felt blindsided by the project and the traffic changes it entails.

The goal of the project is to make it easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to go between the city center and West Hill. Since the public comment period closed at the end of April, Alternative 2 / Alternative B, a $712,000 project which widens the sidewalk on either side to 10 feet, and adds a bike lane on the street, was selected by the Board of Public Works in June. The other plan was a slightly more expensive proposal calling for a multi-use path on one side, with a concrete barrier separating it from the road. Both reconstruction plans also called for providing a mid-block pedestrian crossing on the east side of the Flood Control Channel Bridge to allow walkers to more safely cross the street, and a new traffic control signal would also be installed at the intersection of Floral Avenue and Hector/West MLK Jr. Street. A third option, bridge widening, was considered, but at nearly $2 million, it was deemed too expensive to be covered by the grant. The plan is to put the project out for bid this December or January, and commence construction in 2018.

The biggest issues in the debate seem to be the lighted signal at the bottom of West Hill, and that the traffic lanes are reduced from four to three. For those who have caught the West End intersections at just the wrong time, when traffic congestion is at its peak, a lane reduction may seem like too great burden to bear.

“The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of the time, it’s not going to have a significant impact on travel time – most delays are from 13, not State Street. Most capacity issues in corridors doesn’t come through lanes, they come through intersections, junctures are the biggest source of delays. We’re still well within capacity with one lane, and we’re still going to have turn lanes there. A significant amount of side-street traffic will also be moved with the new bridge for the Brindley Street project. The biggest concern to the city isn’t the lanes, it’s the two signals. The mid-block signal was a concern of {Common} Council.”

The largest single point of contention might be the parameters under which one of the traffic studies was conducted back when the city engineer’s report was being compiled. On page 2-4, it notes a traffic study was performed from August 4th-7th 2014 – a period when schools like LACS aren’t in session, and when few college students would be present, although it could be counter-argued that their traffic to relatively distant West Hill is generally limited.

Logue responded that that was only one set of data among several. “That August 4th-7th period, those were daily traffic counts from New York State, those weren’t the only traffic data provided. We drove through the corridor to measure traffic times. Some days it takes me no more than three minutes to get through the corridor, but two days ago it took 15 minutes, whether due to a traffic accident or school buses…we’re trying took at the variability of travel as well, and we did those travel times in April 2016, when the schools were in session. Those are on the next page, 2-5. That August 4th-7th period is not the basis of the entire project.”

A check of the April 15-22 2016 study does confirm the colleges and Ithaca City schools were in session that week. Should the Common Council order it, another set of traffic studies could be conducted, but the city would not be reimbursed by the federal government for a repeat of work already done. “A second traffic study would be on the city’s dime. I don’t see why a second traffic study needs to be done. I’m more than happy to respond to emails and questions, but I don’t have a whole lot of interest in putting this project on pause.”

Some of the suggestions thrown out to try and stave off the impending change include a traffic circle and an entirely new bridge across the inlet for walkers and bikers (some suggested the 15 year-old “Bridge to Nowhere” on the south edge of the city, but the town and city have plans for a state-funded trail over it). Unfortunately, both options have prohibitive flaws. A legal traffic circle wouldn’t fit without buying multiple properties to make room, and the problem with the bridge comes down to approvals money. According to Logue, the city and federal government split the project bill 20/80. A bigger outright cost translates to a bigger bill for the city of Ithaca.

“I’ve lived on West Hill 15 years as a driver, walker, biker, and I’ve seen it from lots different perspectives….the goal of the project is not to make it easier to drive through the West End. The goal of the project is, ‘how do we make this corridor more comfortable to walk through, walk across, and bike through, without having such a negative traffic impact that it’s going to be such a problem,” said Logue.

“We’ve already been through two full years of design on this, this was not some secret project. I’d be surprised if the board or Common Council said, let’s rewind all the way back to scoping. It’d be more likely to say, let’s make sure we did our homework, answer the question about the mid-block signal, and move forward.”

Traffic has long been a sore spot on West Hill, which bottlenecks into two bridges to get to most of the big employers downtown or on the other hills. In fact, from the 1960s to the late 1990s, it was arguably worse – many older residents still talk of “The Octopus”, where Route 96 and seven roads converged at what was then the only bridge going over the inlet. Plans for an interstate-grade four-lane highway from the hospital to downtown Ithaca were stalled in the late 1970s at the last second, and finally killed by activist groups in the late 1980s. The state and city eventually settled on a plan of one-way roads and two bridges, one for 79 and one for 89/96, with construction starting in 1994. The octopus has been untangled, but the area is still prone to debates over traffic routing, signal timers and more recently, a big push for safer bike and pedestrian routes.

For those interested, the project opponents and some advocates will be attending the Board of Public Works meeting Monday the 25th at 4:45 p.m. at Ithaca City Hall.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.