CAPITAL REGION -- A new task force should look at whether staggering state employee work times or other measures could ease the rush-hour commutes on the Northway, a Capital Region state assemblyman thinks.
“There’s just a lot of frustration, it’s not good for anybody,” said Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam. “I travel these roads, and I see it first-hand.”
The region’s level of commuter congestion is something regional planners have been pondering for years, but Santabarbara thinks a high-level analysis by state agencies, legislators and employee unions would be worthwhile.
Santabarbara on Thursday introduced a bill in the Assembly that would create a task force to study the idea of adjusting when state employee's start and end their workdays, the impact it would have on reducing traffic congestion, and submit a report on its feasibility to the governor and Legislature.
While the Northway has a reputation for unanticipated delays, the state Thruway and Interstate-90 in Rensselaer are also frequent sources of hard-to-predict congestion that only seems to get worse as outlying communities continue to grow.
“Congestion on these major roadways will only get worse if we don’t begin looking for solutions now," Santabarbara said. "Staggering the time state workers begin and end their workday is one solution that has the potential to decrease the number of cars on I-90, I-87, I-787, and other key roadways during the morning and evening rush hour."
The state Capitol complex is a major commuter destination, but Santabarbara noted that workers commuting to the state office campus and students heading to the University at Albany – thousands of them – are also on the roads at around the same time.
According to a study released last month by Texas A&M University, Capital Region commuters spent an average of 49 hours stuck in traffic in 2017 -- increase from 45 hours in 2012. That is also more than the average of what commuters in other cities comparable in size to Albany face, which is 44 hours, according to the study.
The study was a national survey, which found that the total amount of time drivers waste in delays has been consistently rising across the country for decades, but that the Capital Region ranked high for the amount of delay, given the region’s population.
Congestion leads to waste of both commuters' time and their fuel, the study noted.
"We already have more data than we know on this issue," Santabarbara said. "Knowing that it could save Capital Region residents time and money, reduce pollution and improve air quality, it’s an issue worth looking into.”
The Northway at the Twin Bridges averages about 104,000 vehicles per day, according to state Department of Transportation figures. I-90 near the State Office Campus in Albany carries more than 115,000 vehicles per day, and the Thruway between Albany and Schenectady averages about 80,000 vehicles.
Data analyzed by the Capital District Transportation Committee shows that it usually takes a driver 20 to 25 minutes to get between Northway Exit 1 – the Thruway-I-90 intersection – and Exit 9, Clifton Park’s main exit. But weather, accidents, breakdowns or any other unforeseen event can easily add to that time.
Strategies already is use to try to ease those delays include electronic message signs to warn commuters of problems ahead so they can seek alternative routes, or be prepared so that sudden braking doesn’t contribute to accidents and delays.
Many state employees are already given flexibility to arrive between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and leave accordingly, but CDTC Executive Director Michael Franchini said the idea of expanding on that could be worth studying, along with access-demand measures like encouraging van- and car-pools.
A draft 30-year regional transportation management plan, New Visions 2050, is due out in March, and will provide data on average commuter speeds – drawn from cellphone location data – that transportation planners haven’t had before.
“We’re looking at congestion more closely to come up with solutions we can recommend,” Franchini said. “Anecdotally, we think it’s slower.”
Weather, crashes or breakdowns are what transportation planners call non-recurring events, which can quickly back up traffic if one or more lanes have to be closed. But Franchini said transportation planners believe the Northway in particular is seeing more “recurring” events – like the bottlenecks that happen when a continuous stream of cars is entering at an exit to merge into Northway traffic in the morning, or backing up onto the Northway lanes to exit in the evening.
Many ideas have been tried elsewhere, he noted. “You could try ideas like regulating the number of vehicles that can enter at any given time,” Franchini said.
“If people have to slam on the brakes that doesn’t work,” he said. “If you can keep people moving traffic at 30 or 40 mph and flowing smoothly, that’s better.”
Santabarbara said now that the bill is introduced, he will be reaching out to colleagues for co-sponsors and a Senate sponsor.
“I’m confident there will be Assembly co-sponsorship,” he said. “We’re already getting a lot of feedback.”