Colonie

Albany Airport upgrades part of continual planning process

Projects costing $92 million will bolster a key part of region's economy
Construction equipment sits in the median of Interstate 87 in Colonie on Friday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Construction equipment sits in the median of Interstate 87 in Colonie on Friday.

COLONIE — Keeping the Albany International Airport running smoothly requires planning and vision, both minor and sweeping, from better taxi management to $50 million worth of highway redesign.

The state Department of Transportation on Friday moved heavy equipment into the median of the Northway to continue work on the reconfiguration of Exit 4 and demolished a vacant house on Albany Shaker Road to make way for a new exit ramp.

It’s part of a continuing series of upgrades for Albany International Airport, which is viewed as a major asset to the region’s economy. About 1.5 million people are expected to board planes there in 2019, 

In 2017, it was only the 80th busiest airport in the nation, but it was the fourth-busiest in New York state and second-busiest outside New York City.

Traffic management is a crucial part of airport management, said John O’Donnell, CEO of the Albany County Airport Authority.

“When you run a facility like this you want to make sure it’s a smooth affair,” he said on Friday. “We work on it every day.”

Along with good access to the airport, motorists need to have a place to park — there’s an average of 7,000 vehicles parked there overnight. Good flow of pedestrians through the terminal and aircraft outside on the apron also are important, O’Donnell said.

To this end, the Airport Authority is undertaking $42 million in garage and terminal upgrades. Combined pricetag with the highway work: $92 million

Northway Exit 3 has attained a mythical status. When the interstate highway was built 60 years ago, Exit 2 and Exit 4 were created at each end of Wolf Road in expectation that an Exit 3 link to the airport would be built, some day. 

For decades, it remained on the wish lists of local and regional planners, but went nowhere until Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration green-lighted it in August 2018.

There still won’t be an Exit 3 — its designation will remain Exit 4. But the desired function of an Exit 3 at long last will be fulfilled.

LOCAL CONGESTION

The Exit 4 redesign aims to speed traffic to the airport by bypassing the three traffic lights near the perennially congested Wolf Road/Albany Shaker Road intersection with a flyover bridge and new traffic light on Albany-Shaker Road, well away from the Northway.

In the process, traffic volume will be reduced at the north end of Wolf Road and the Desmond Hotel and convention center will gain streamlined ingress and egress.

So the $50 million worth of work won’t just save airport travelers a few minutes’ drive, it will reduce a bottleneck that has long plagued the town.

“You’re going to see a huge reduction in the Wolf Road area,” predicted Joe LaCivita, director of the town of Colonie’s Planning and Economic Development Department. “I’m glad it’s finally taking off.”

A state Department of Transportation spokesman said Friday that the project is on budget and on schedule for its targeted spring 2020 completion. Pile-driving for the footings of the flyover bridge is completed on west side of the Northway and began Friday in the median. Preparation is underway for drainage and utility work.

ECONOMIC ASSET

LaCivita, whose department has the dual role of attracting new business to town and leading the town’s planning oversight, said the airport is a great selling point.

“From my perspective it’s an asset, being in the town,” he said.

“But I don’t think it’s just an asset to the town, I think the airport itself is a regional asset. I think their role is much bigger than people expect.”

He added: “We talk about it at every point we can” when courting businesses considering relocating to Colonie.

Current Exit 4 congestion notwithstanding, the airport is very convenient to a large swath of New York and western New England, thanks to Route 7 and interstates 87 and 90. The closest airport that’s busier is a two-hour drive away, near Hartford (3.2 million boardings in 2017). In upstate New York, the only busier airport is 250 miles away, in Buffalo (2.3 million boardings).

Marty Vanags, president of the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, said he relies on the airport in his economic development activities.

“The Albany Airport really serves a great benefit for Saratoga County,” he said.

“An airport is foundational for economic development for a region. You’ve got to a have a good airport that flies to a lot of destinations, that flies to good connection locations. People need to travel.”

(The airport itself is a significant economic force, with more than 1,000 full- and part-time jobs just in the terminal, and additional hundreds elsewhere within the perimeter.)

Vanags recalled a prior economic development job in central Illinois, where the airport had service and amenities far in excess of what one might expect in a semi-rural region, due to the nearby presence of State Farm’s corporate headquarters.

“It helped to bring other companies, other businesses, at least got them interested,” Vanags said.

It’s a question that gets asked and answered endlessly in the economic development world: What are the transportation links?

AIRPORT PLANNING

O’Donnell, a civil engineer by training, said he and the airport’s staff, board and consultants are continually looking ahead on two tracks: short-term planning for smaller issues and long-term planning for larger issues. The two might seem separate but more often than not they are related or intertwined.

Some examples:

A solution is being sought for the growing curbside congestion outside the terminal due to the number of taxi, Lyft and Uber drivers on site.

Valet parking added to relieve pressure on the parking garage in the wake of a 20 percent rebound in passenger traffic after the Great Recession has probably prevented curbside congestion from being worse.

Time is being invested now to figure out how to prevent a domino effect of problems from the extensive construction this summer.

These are the short-term planning steps — “changes you have to address on a quarterly basis here at the airport,” O’Donnell said.

Then there are the longer-term changes.

“We’re considered a small hub airport in the national aviation world,” he said. “It’s a very convenient size but what we have to do is stay ahead of the growth.”

Over the next seven years, the airport will add aircraft gates, upgrade the terminal and build a new garage in preparation for greater passenger volume and flight activity.

Passenger boardings have increased every year since 2012, reaching 1.47 million in 2018. O’Donnell said the Airport Authority expects about 1.5 million in 2019. A year later, it expects to tie the all-time peak (1.56 million, set in 2004), then see continuing 2- to 3-percent annual growth, barring a severe recession.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

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