ITHACA, N.Y. — New York State Route 13, from about the areas of where it intersects with Cascadilla Street to where it crosses Fall Creek near Ithaca High School, is a stretch of highway that makes bikers and pedestrians skittish, drivers frustrated, and draws a rough divide between Cayuga Lake’s waterfront and the Northside and Fall Creek neighborhoods. One of the most trafficked lengths of roadway in the city, it also sees the highest frequency of accidents in Ithaca, according to City officials.
Remedying these issues has been a topic of community discussion for decades now. That was clear on Wednesday, when just under 100 members of the larger Ithaca community came together at Boynton Middle School lunchroom, offering their ideas and vision for the troublesome span of state highway.
The event was the first public workshop that the City of Ithaca has held as it looks to propose a serious redesign of Route 13. The aim for the city is to finish the redesign and see it approved before the end of 2023, and the goals are to improve Route 13’s infrastructure in the interest of pedestrians and cyclists, potentially transform 13 into an urban boulevard, and better weave the city’s waterfront into its neighborhoods. Plans are still in the early concept development stage, which Wednesday’s event was supposed to directly inform.
Poster boards were stood-up throughout the room, displaying facts and figures as well as different design concepts to improve intersections, crosswalks, and introduce bike lanes. Attendees were able to mark their support on the boards with colorful stickers to express the ideas that spoke most strongly to them. On other boards, there was a black and white print out of Route 13 and, with markers handy, attendees were able to draw out their ideas of what better intersections, traffic infrastructure, and what a better overall road looked like to them.
Tim Logue, the City of Ithaca’s Director of Engineering, said on Wednesday that Ithaca will need to strike the right balance between improving pedestrian and bike access along Route 13, while not compromising the traffic flow of one of — if not the most — important roadways in the county.
“We can’t just intentionally, totally mess that up just so we can make it more comfortable to walk across the street. That said, city folks getting across the highway is super important to do in a safe way,” said Logue. “How can I walk with my four year old to the farmers market, or ride my bike with my 12 year old and not get hurt — that’s an important thing for us to be able to do.”
One board, titled Bicyclists Facilities, demonstrated good support for an off road bike-exclusive lane run between the sidewalk and the road, with medians on either side of the bike lane. An off-road path friendly to both bikes and walkers also gained plenty of colorful stickers.
Given the lacking cyclist infrastructure along Route 13, Kleda McGurk, a Bike Walk Tompkins instructor, said that she “avoids Route 13 as much as possible.”
Residents were asked to describe their difficulty utilizing the intersections along Route 13 where it met with Dey and Third Streets. The results showed that people overwhelmingly felt that for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike, the intersections were difficult to navigate or felt uncomfortable too.
Part of the problem is speeding and driving hazards along the portion of Route 13 in question. City of Ithaca Transportation Engineer Erin Cuddihy said Wednesday, “Before I saw the crash data, I was thinking of this more like we’re trying to balance giving people space to walk and bike versus having room for people to drive through. But now I recognize that there are more problems. The status quo is not safe. We have too many crashes on route 13.”
Between Aug. 2019 and Aug. 2022, the city of Ithaca shared that 46 crashes happened at Route 13’s intersection with Third Street, which connects to the Ithaca Farmers Market. At 13’s intersection with Dey Street, there were 37 crashes in the same time frame.
Cuddihy added that the city does have extra space available on both sides of Route 13, which will keep more options open when it starts time to put designs together. “We don’t necessarily have to make the choice to have this many travel lanes or have, like roads and sidewalks, we can choose both. The idea of this project is how do we want that to look.”
Converting the stretch of route 13 into an urban boulevard — one of the central ideas of the redesign — could help address the speeding issues.
“I think the boulevard idea will visually narrow things and calm things and make pedestrians feel like they have some sort of haven as they’re crossing,” said Molly Hajjar, another instructor for Bike Walk Tompkins. Hajjar also raised an idea for a land bridge, also known as a wildlife crossing, which seemed to be a popular idea in the conversations The Ithaca Voice had with attendees regardless of how realistic it may or may not be.
If there was one in place, Hajjar said, “I would plan my [bike] routes to cross 13 to go over that just because it would be so stress free.”
Over the years, different proposals of differing scales have been formulated and faded out of memory to reinvent this stretch of Ithaca’s main arterial highway. Ralph Murphy, owner of Allstone & Tile on Fourth Street attended Wednesday’s event.
With some skepticism he said, “I’ve lived and worked [here] for 32 years, and this is the third time — if not more — that we’ve gone through these discussions.” He added, however, that he did feel like there was “a lot more discussion” these days than in previous years. Perhaps because this latest effort seems to have added oomph behind it.
In 2020, the city received a highly competitive grant for $1.37 million matching grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) BUILD program for the Cayuga Waterfront Revitalization Project — the formal name of the Route 13 redesign efforts.
Logue said, “The big difference in my mind is over the years, we’ve had lots of conversations about Route 13 routine, but we’ve never had a very well funded project, with a consultant, and DOT working with us directly. With a scope that was approved through a competitive federal aid, like grant process, all of that stuff combined.”
While the funding for the redesign is in place, and that work is underway, the construction funding for implementing those designs isn’t. That’s a process that is further down the road, said Logue. After all, the designs aren’t finished yet, but considering the scope of change that the city is aiming for, Logue said that the entire project could come to the tune of between $10 and $15 million.
“We don’t do $10 or $15 million projects very often — $1, $2, $3, $4 million [projects]? Yeah, we do those a lot, but $15 million? Not very often. That’s a big deal,” he said.
“This really has the potential to be — I’ve been joking with people — the project of your career. It could be that kind of big project,” said Logue. “We’re talking about transforming a miles worth of highway that is in between our downtown and our waterfront district. Something that’s been like that for 50 years.”
For those interested in sharing their thoughts on the redesign of Route 13, the City of Ithaca has made a website, www.route13ithaca.com, where questions and comments can be submitted and more information will be presented as the project develops.