SARATOGA COUNTY — As more people move into suburban municipalities and utilize town roads and state highways in southern Saratoga County, planning experts and town officials say proactive planning is the key to managing traffic congestion.
According to the most recent data available from the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, the population grew in two of the Capital Region’s fastest-growing towns, Clifton Park and Halfmoon, by 3,595 and 3,176, respectively, from 2000 to 2010.
The most recent data available from the CDRPC also showed that 174 new residential construction permits were issued in Halfmoon and 48 in Clifton Park just in the year 2014.
Michael Franchini, executive director of the Capital District Transportation Committee, an organization that guides and assists counties with large-scale planning projects, said the major spot CDTC watches for traffic congestion is the Adirondack Northway — Interstate 87.
“It’s not a secret, we know that there’s some congestion on the Northway,” Franchini said.
According to data analyzed by CDTC, it usually takes a driver from 20 to 25 minutes to move from Exit 1 to Exit 9 on the Northway during peak traffic times in the morning and evening.
However, Franchini said, unexpected complicating events on the heavily used highway, such as bad weather, accidents and breakdowns, cause travel time to jump to anywhere from 35 to 55 minutes.
“Everything that is a little unusual, that’s when the travel times on the Northway start getting much higher,” he said. “In the end, you can’t predict them, and you certainly can’t plan for them.”
On a larger traffic mitigation scale, less is often more, Franchini said.
Sometimes, helping to alleviate traffic buildups on the Northway requires nothing more than placing informational signage where drivers can easily see it, giving them enough of a warning about an obstruction ahead that they can either exit the highway early or slow down far enough beforehand, eliminating sudden braking upon arrival at construction or accident sites. Signage, he added, is also a more cost-effective alternative to adding on new lanes.
“You can tell people that there’s a slowdown at Exit 9. They’ll get off the Northway. That’s getting more knowledge to the driver,” he said.
But mitigating traffic congestion once people get off of the highway and into the towns is another issue, he said.
Franchini pointed out that towns in Saratoga County, including fast-growing Halfmoon, must grapple with the fact that every residential construction permit approved will mean at least one more car hitting the road.
Franchini cited Clifton Park as one town that has been successfully navigating and mitigating its traffic congestion, noting that the town’s vast trail and new sidewalk network is a cheap alternative to building new roads with more lanes.
Ultimately, Franchini said, town boards and planning boards everywhere must be cognizant of the fact that development leads inevitably to traffic, and must include mitigation early in planning efforts.
“It can be done. You can’t just wait for congestion. You have to plan for that,” he said.
Both Clifton Park and Halmoon have seen large projects over the last few years that have affected traffic.
Since Clifton Park in 2015 implemented a Town Center Form Based Code, which spells out what type of development would best serve the the town’s burgeoning town center area by Exit 9, hundreds of new residences have been proposed and built, both apartment complexes and more traditional subdivisions with one or two family condominiums or homes.
Those projects almost always feature provisions for at least one car for each family. One recent example is the proposed Kmart redevelopment project by Windsor Development, which calls for the creation of 100 apartments, with parking for reach unit.
Identifying traffic concerns in the area is a multi-municipality, multi-organization effort.
The state does have a role in mitigating traffic issues, most recently in creating an almost $3 million roundabout at the intersection of Route 146 and Vischer Ferry Road in Clifton Park, which has been widely acknowledged as a traffic trouble spot since the 1990s. But most municipalities work together to identify traffic concerns themselves and then work with regional organizations, including the Capital District Transportation Committee, to secure funding and find solutions to the issues.
“That’s where a lot of these projects take place,” state Department of Transportation spokesman Bryan Viggiani said. “Generally, we work with the towns and CDTC.”
Clifton Park, according to town supervisor Phil Barrett, has been dealing with the effects of population growth for decades. It now has over 36,000 residents.
He added that the town has, over the years, seen a sharp increase in commuter traffic. Route 146, which runs directly through town, is the most direct route from Schenectady County to large area employers like GlobalFoundries, just a few miles from Clifton Park’s border.
But as that traffic has increased, Barrett said, so has the town’s creation of alternative opportunities for transportation, including dozens of miles of trails and sidewalks, as well as an aggressive pursuit of state and county grant funding for traffic mitigation projects.
“We have continuing discussions with New York state and county representatives, since these entities own and maintain major roads in Clifton Park. We are also continually assessing areas for future improvements and submitting grant applications to garner needed funding,” he said.
Halfmoon Town Supervisor Keving Tollisen said the town’s growing population (now over 24,000) does add to traffic congestion, but Halfmoon roads also are congested from non-resident drivers who are just passing through town.
“Obviously, traffic is a concern in any town,” he said, noting that often drivers coming through Halfmoon live in neighboring municipalities such as Stillwater and Mechanicville. “To get where they’re going, they have to get through Halfmoon.”
Halfmoon has, in the last few years, embarked on a handful of projects meant to curb traffic congestion at highly driven spots.
“We do have plans in place and we do try to keep traffic and traffic flow at the forefront,” Tollisen said. “Traffic increase means positive growth but you have to mitigate.”
Those projects include upgrade of major intersections, including a traffic signal update and addition of a left turning lane.
While Halfmoon has a Highway Traffic Mitigation Fund meant to set aside money to go to traffic improvements, Tollisen noted that Halfmoon also often partners with its immediate neighbor, Clifton Park, as well as the state DOT and CDTC to identify and design traffic issues and improvements.
“We all have limited budgets, but working together we can get these things done,” he said.