ITHACA, N.Y. – The stretch of Forest Home Drive between Judd Falls Road and McIntyre Place traces the edge of Beebe Lake, providing sunset views and a mostly flat route to and from the historic hamlet of Forest Home. Due to concerns about the safety of a guiderail, however, the road segment could be permanently closed to traffic.
According to James Weber, director of public works for the Town of Ithaca, guiderail repairs that would satisfy contemporary safety guidelines are not feasible. At a Town Board meeting Monday, he said construction standards are more stringent now than they were about 50 years ago, when the current rail was put in place. More than a dozen public commenters, however, questioned whether major repairs are needed to keep the road open and called for further study.
Forest Home Drive has been the site of significant repair work in recent years. The road was closed from Thurston Ave. to the Olin Laboratory service drive for over two years, starting in September 2015, while an eroding gorge wall was shored up.
Residents at Monday’s meeting said they hadn’t noticed any problems with the quarter-mile stretch between McIntyre and Judd Falls, though. “It’s a great section of road,” said Doug Brittain, identifying himself as a resident and engineer. “The few problems I see are routine maintenance or lack thereof,” he said.
Many Forest Home residents said they worried closing the section of road could create safety hazards.
“This section of FHD is the only flat route out of the community unless you want to go east,” reads a statement submitted to the Town Board by Caroline Arms, president of the Forest Home Improvement Association. “All other routes involve steep hills on which vehicles get stuck in wintry conditions.”
The FHIA statement also raises concerns about pedestrian safety on adjacent roads if traffic is rerouted, the safety of the intersection at McIntyre and Judd Falls for turning vehicles, and access for emergency vehicles and school buses that currently use Forest Home Drive. Speaking at Monday’s meeting, Arms said potential safety impacts should be thoroughly studied before any major changes are made, and said “rebuilding of any infrastructure in Forest Home should be planned in conjunction with residents.”
Alongside questions about safety, commenters brought up quality of life impacts that might follow from closing the road, such as increased traffic congestion, the loss of a scenic byway, and navigation difficulties for visitors to Cornell. Some suggested the road could be reduced to a single lane to minimize congestion elsewhere while providing room for an improved guiderail.
After public comments, the board briefly withdrew to a closed session to discuss liability issues related to the guiderail. When the session was reopened several board members said they would like to see Forest Home Drive stay open but acknowledged the decision will ultimately be made by the head of the DPW.
Board member Pat Leary said while it’s up to the superintendent to evaluate the road’s safety, “If there’s any way to avoid closing the road we should.” She added, “I think the safety issue is in closing the road; closing it would create a worse safety issue.”
Tee-Ann Hunter said she wanted additional information from town engineering staff and guiderail vendors so the board could find a cost-effective way to keep the road open. “I would like to explore alternative fixes,” she said.
Weber, however, said there is no easy fix that will bring the guiderail up to contemporary standards. He explained that the roadway is supported by gabions, or in layman’s terms, big metal baskets filled with rocks. They’re quick and easy to build, Weber said, but may not provide enough long-term stability to support posts for guiderails that will meet guiderail companies’ safety standards.
Weber said he spoke to a local guiderail vendor, “and they told us that because of deterioration in some areas and the use of gabions … posts for the guiderails cannot be set.”
“There are multiple alternatives that can be employed,” Weber said, “but all of them have costs.”
The topic will be up for discussion again at the Town of Ithaca Public Works Committee meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18. Board member Rod Howe, who chairs the committee, said he will seek input from town staff, guiderail vendors and members of the public.
Summing up comments from the public and the board, member Rich DePaolo said, “It seems to me that there’s a balancing test here between potential liability and functionality for the community.” He reiterated others’ calls for more information, “as opposed to shutting down the road because we’re afraid.”