The Capital Region Economic Development Council has submitted a new wish list, including money for connecting the Albany International Airport directly to the Northway.
I call it the wish list because our region has fared poorly the first two years in the statewide competition for economic development grants, even though the applications looked good.
We landed GlobalFoundries with a $2 billion state incentive deal back when the Republicans were in charge, and some insiders think that’s led to Capital Region envy in places like Hornell or Ogdensburg, and that that influences how the Cuomo administration reads the applications. Or maybe politics does. Or maybe there are parts of upstate that actually need the state’s handouts more.
In any event, the regional EDC this week sent Empire State Development a report listing 31 “priority” projects totaling nearly $67 million — one of them being a $5 million request for the airport connector.
“Most airports have direct access to the interstate, and we don’t,” said John O’Donnell, CEO of Albany International Airport.
The idea of direct access to the region’s main airport is older than the Northway itself — there were once plans for an Exit 3, and the access road through the Sand Creek neighborhood to the airport even had a designation, I-687, before citizen opposition killed it in the early 1970s.
There will not be an Exit 3, but it’s possible the stars are finally coming into alignment for big fixes at Exit 4. Business leaders are behind it, recognizing that the arrival of world-traveling high-tech business executives means the region needs to up its game.
The state Department of Transportation is finishing a draft environmental impact statement that will look at redesigning Northway access to Wolf Road and providing a direct link to the airport.
Details will be in the impact statement when it comes out in a few weeks, but DOT spokesman Bryan Viggiani said one part — replacing the two aging bridges that carry the Northway over Albany-Shaker Road — could start as soon as late 2014. The work will take two years.
The airport connector probably won’t happen until 2019, according to DOT, but there’s already an effort to get local money lined up.
The Albany County Airport Authority is putting up $3 million in cash and contributing an estimated $3 million worth of airport-owned land within the runway “clear zone.” The connector road could cross that land. “As long as there’s not standing traffic, it’s a compatible use,” O’Donnell said.
Albany County and the town of Colonie will come up with another $1 million between them.
If the project wins the $5 million Empire State Development grant, O’Donnell hopes it, and support from the region’s four chambers of commerce, will be enough to get DOT to commit.
DOT also wants to address the horrendous tie-ups that occur where the Northway, Albany-Shaker, and Wolf Road meet — a problem most of us encounter more often than we fly. The intersections currently function so poorly it scared away Cabela’s, the big-box sporting goods retailer, which eyed land near The Desmond.
The intersection of Wolf Road and Albany-Shaker sees an average of 29,100 vehicles per day, while the intersection on the west side of the Northway averages 24,700 vehicles, according to DOT. Frustrating rush-hour backups are routine.
There are several options on the table that shift Exit 4 south and link it directly to Albany-Shaker Road. The environmental impact statement will sort them out, and there will be several months of public review.
O’Donnell said fixing access to Wolf Road is important to the airport, since many travelers flying into Albany head for chain lodging or chain eateries on Wolf Road’s commercial strip.
“Travelers get caught in traffic, and we do hear about it,” O’Donnell said.
DOT is estimating the cost of the airport connector and the interchange improvements at somewhere between $23 million and $34 million, with no source of funding identified, other than what the airport authority manages to raise.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. The opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.