A Saratoga Springs lawyer arrived at an early morning meeting in Halfmoon last week with this comment: “Thank God we’re not in that every day.”
“That,” of course, was the morning commute on the Northway, when thousands of drivers stream from Warren and Saratoga counties in the direction of Albany.
And it hadn’t even been a bad morning — a slowdown north of Exit 9 because of a state trooper’s stop, but otherwise just a lot of moving traffic. None of the stop-and-go across all three lanes that sometimes happens.
The real commuter bottleneck is at
the Twin Bridges: U.S. Census Bureau data show that 15,000 people who live in Clifton Park, Malta or Halfmoon commute to Albany or Rensselaer counties for work, compared to 12,000 from the rest of Saratoga County. By the time they reach the Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge, it’s a lot of cars, SUVs and trucks packed onto the highway in a short amount of time.
More than 100,000 vehicles a day use the Northway at its busiest southern end, in Albany and southern Saratoga counties — and outside the commuting hours, traffic flows so smoothly that few follow the speed limit.
The Northway commute, while notorious in the Capital Region, is easy compared to what happens in bigger cities and in other parts of the country.
“If you just focus on the Northway, it’s really just one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening,” said Michael Franchini, executive director of the Capital District Transportation Committee, which sets federal transportation spending priorities for the region.
“It’s a relatively short period of time, but I’m sure the people in that traffic are as frustrated as anyone else,” Franchini said.
Accidents, vehicle fires, construction and even weather are incidents that can disrupt the commute, and are going to be issues even if the Northway were widened, Franchini noted — not that that’s in the cards, given the gridlock over transportation funding in Congress.
Not a viable option
“We’ve done computer modeling, and the commuter model says if you add a lane, within two or three years the congestion comes right back,” Franchini said. That’s because drivers who might be taking Route 50 or Route 9 or another alternative route will come back to the Northway.
“It’s definitely not a long-term solution, and the cost of building added interstate lanes is enormous,” Franchini said.
What will be more logical and cost-effective, he said, is encouraging what transportation planners call “demand management” — getting people to carpool or van together, or take the bus.
Census statistics show that 80 percent of Capital Region residents drive to work alone, slightly above the 76 percent national average. A higher percentage than that of vehicles have just one occupant, since the census statistics include people who work at home or walk to work, and aren’t driving at all.
About 7.76 percent of Capital Region drivers car- or van-pool, according to the census numbers, and 3.32 percent take public transit.
In any effort to manage demand, the Capital District Transportation Authority has to be part of the solution — but it finds itself straining already to meet the demands of carrying a record 17 million riders annually.
“Congestion is in the eye of the beholder,” said Carm Basile, CDTA’s chief executive officer. “The real issue is where do we want to put our resources.”
About 70 percent of CDTA riders are going to or from work, according to the authority, but its high ridership is spread over more hours than the traditional morning and evening commutes.
“We’re maxed out with the resources we have,” Basile said. “If we had $5 million more and I knew we would have it year and after year, you would see more bus service in more places.”
Where more money would come from remains very much up in the air.
With the current short-term transportation funding bill due to expire July 31, serious negotiations toward a long-term bill have resumed in Washington.
“There is growing consensus on the need for this legislation and its importance to a vibrant national economy,” Basile said. “The stumbling block is how to pay for it.”
For those who dislike congestion, there were hopeful signs in the 2010 census data, Franchini noted — more people are moving into cities, presumedly putting them closer to workplaces. In the future, telecommuting could also reduce congestion, he said.