TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. –– Route 13 is one of the most important roads in Tompkins County. Every day, thousands of people use it to commute from nearby rural and suburban towns to jobs in and around the city of Ithaca. However, it’s also a road with significant issues, especially the heavily-trafficked stretch from the village of Dryden to the village of Lansing. It’s difficult to perform left turns in many areas, some intersections have questionable or outright dangerous layouts, and the increasing number of travelers on its lanes pose major and growing problems if not addressed.

Tompkins County staff are well aware of the issue; after all, many of them drive on Route 13 to get to work and back themselves. To try and address their Route 13 concerns, the Tompkins County Department of Planning and Sustainability (TCDPS) and Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council (ITCTC) have been working with a team of consultants on what’s considered the most pressing need, a 9-mile stretch from the Dryden village line, to the intersection of Route 13 and Warren Road in the village of Lansing. This is where the limited-access highway from Ithaca’s West End terminates, and in the late 1960s the plan was to continue that ramp-based highway all the way to Cortland. But it lost state and local support after the initial three-mile long expressway was built in Ithaca. Instead, the Lansing-Dryden stretch of 13 downgrades to a divided highway and then a two-lane roadway as it heads eastbound.

The study, carried out by a team consisting of Barton & Loguidice of Syracuse, Highland Planning, and Labella Associates of Rochester, is fairly straightforward. It looks at current traffic counts, intersection “level of service” analyses to see if people can safely make turns within reasonable time frames, crash data and land use and development patterns for properties that would likely send their occupants out onto Route 13. Building off of that data, it looks at future development plans and scenarios, how traffic counts are likely to grow and change, and what kinds of short-term and long-term road improvements the county and state can undertake to handle that growth safely, along with cost estimates and implementation strategies. The 124-page final draft, presented to the Tompkins County Legislature last week, can be viewed here.

As with any decent 15-month planning study, the consultants sought public feedback. According to county planners, the study’s steering committee engaged the public through over 1,500 survey responses, interviews and public comment periods, the largest of which was a Zoom-based virtual public meeting held in early September (transcript here). No one said outreach for public comment during a pandemic would be easy.

“We thought a lot about the accessibility of an online platform for public meetings, unfortunately Zoom is one of the best options at this time in terms of engaging with the community,” said Keith Ewald, a Managing Planner for Barton & Loguidice who worked on the study. “We probably had about 90 people and maybe a little over 100 at one point. Typically in a planning study like this, that’s a great turnout. We were pleased with the outcome. That said, there may have been a few outliers that weren’t familiar with Zoom, or didn’t have internet and weren’t able to join. In those cases, we have a lot of different ways people can stay informed. We have a community stakeholder e-mail list, and about 1,000 residents local to the corridor who are on an email blast where we send links and presentations and drafts of the report. There are a lot of ways we’ve been keeping people informed.”

Of particular interest in the study were six specific intersections along that stretch of Route 13 –– Warren Road, Sapsucker Woods Road, Hanshaw Road, Lower Creek Road, and two intersections of State Route 366 (as Dryden Road and as Etna/Freeville’s Main Street). They generally posed one or more major problems at present –– either they experience high traffic volumes with long wait times and poor levels of services, or awkward configurations that make car crashes especially frequent or dangerous, or some combination of the two.

“The county wanted to focus on five particular intersections with a history of accidents and traffic problems. We looked at those five but then we focused on a couple of others and added to the group based on the data. The information in the public survey results were pretty well aligned with trends we were seeing in the data at those intersections. We saw a couple of Dryden bypass and Warren Road overpass comments, that was interesting though none of the data suggests that kind of large-scale project is necessary. But there weren’t a whole lot of surprises. We tend to make decisions on data, but it’s important to have an eye towards the community, to query their responses and see how frequent a comment or location was,” said Ewald.

Addressing the problem intersections comes in two forms. The short-term is the cheaper, low-hanging fruit that can be done within a couple of years: things like re-timing traffic signals or adding lighting. These could help limit the most frequent car crashes, rear-end accidents and animal collisions. The long-term work is the 5-10 year plan that requires a significant state investment to happen, like reconfiguring an intersection into a roundabout, which was an idea floated in the draft for a couple of locations. Roundabouts have been a popular choice by the state Department of Transportation in recent years, though they tend to get a lot of hate before drivers get used to them. Ewald sought to make clear that they were only a proposal and not a done deal.

“Typically in those instances, people tend to be wary of their effectiveness of safety. I think it’s important to say that the purpose of this study and report is to largely document and assess problems along the corridor, and then develop design strategies for further consideration by DOT. There is no funding in place, this is just to identify potential ideas to give to DOT. But we find it’s just an educational thing – if the DOT likes the idea and they believe Brown-Sapsucker Woods Road could benefit from a roundabout, they’d host a series of public meetings to educate the public. Roundabouts reduce traffic conflict, and eliminate a lot of traffic movement because it’s a through-movement, veering around the circle. We try to show the benefits, but just because we’re showing one doesn’t mean that we’re going to see it in the next couple of years. These are ideas and strategies for further consideration by the county and DOT.”

As for the growth aspect, the study divides into “more likely” and “less likely” categories, with “more likely” being the more concrete projects floating around and likely to be built in the next 10 years, and the less likely being things that are zoned for prime development or rumored to have interest. Sites 1-4 are industrial and R&D buildings in the 30,000-80,000 square-foot range yet to be built in the Cornell Business and Technology Park. Sites 5 and 6 are the new NYS DOT office and the proposed new TCAT headquarters. Site 7 is a sprawling 40-lot single-family home subdivision from 900 acres of former Lucente property, and 8 is the Dryden village mixed-use project by developer Larry Dick. Sites 9-12 are purely theoretical, either as industrial, commercial retail/office, or residential. Along with these sites are a smattering of about 20 single-family homes built in Dryden every year that use Route 13 as their arterial road to get to Ithaca, and anything over in Cortland County is out of the study’s purview. These projects will increase traffic volume and potentially worsen service at intersections, so they need to be considered as part of the long-term needs for Route 13.

Another major push in the study was looking at ways to make Route 13 more accessible to other modes of transportation than individual cars – making it more convenient for bus routes and bikers in particular. Biking along Route 13 might sound like a scary prospect, and Ewald agreed that it would be perilous in the road’s current state.

“We encourage other modes of transportation to reduce levels of congestion if people can walk or bike,” Ewald said. “Designing those facilities is a good idea, but there would have to be changes to the corridor itself to deploy safe pedestrian facilities. Bike lanes are good and hardcore bicyclists prefer it vs. a separated side path parallel to the road, but there would need to be mechanisms in place – the speed limits aren’t the problem, but the speed at which people are traveling are the problem, they tend to travel faster. Turning left is also a major problem, because cars are waiting, and they sometimes use the shoulder which is dangerous. We have to remove obstacles to have bike lanes in the pavement. If that’s not a possibility, there is enough ROW (right of way), we recommend 10 feet, for a multi-directional side path where people could walk or bike. We’d recommend that more on the eastern half of the corridor where it’s denser. But as things develop, you never know. We build those things in the plan just so they’re documented and thought about.”

While the legislature has had a chance to view and compliment the final draft, any changed to Route 13 based on the study’s recommendation are still a while out. Expanded turning lanes, roundabouts and bike lanes are still a ways off.

“If this is a ten-step process, this is like step two,” Ewald said with a laugh. “Once the plan’s in place, it becomes the county, and state, and local community’s priorities to determine what gets funding, and which government agencies to apply to get a project going. There are several ways to do that, with the state’s TIP (Transportation Improvement Program), for instance, or federally. Once a project’s funded, there’s a multi-phase process, a draft design report that focuses on just that segment and ID various alternatives to mitigate the problem. That goes through review and public involvement, and then you go through final design and put those out for bid for contractors to build it. Really every step of the way there will be public comment. It’s a process, but this study is a very important part of the process, to guide that future work.”

Brian Crandall

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