Anyone who’s ever sat in traffic on the way in and out of Albany during rush hour has probably thought to themselves, “There has to be a better way.”
And if there’s inclement weather or if there’s a fender bender or a disabled vehicle or something worse along the route, the increase in your commute time is matched only by the increase in your blood pressure.
So Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara is correct in urging the state to address the persistent and growing problem of commute times along the Adirondack Northway (I-87), I-90, I-787 and other highways leading in and out of the state capital.
According to a Texas study cited by the assemblyman, Capital Region commuters spent an average of 49 hours stuck in traffic in 2017, up 11 percent from 45 hours just five years earlier and more than quadruple the 11 hours commuters spent making the same trip in 1987.
The traffic issues don’t just get on the nerves of drivers and detract from the time they can spend at their jobs, with their families or doing anything that involves not wasting time sitting in traffic. The high volume of traffic also increases the possibility of accidents, adds to wear and tear on vehicles, increases air pollution and takes money out of commuters’ pockets. For the average Albany-area commuters, the delays alone (not just the commute itself) cost them about $670 a year, including 21 extra gallons of gas, according to the study. That’s not an insignificant amount of time or money.
Something needs to be done to address this problem before those numbers grow even more.
The issue of long commutes into urban areas is a complex problem that no community has been able to eliminate. Still, the commute times are something the state, local governments and businesses could reduce, perhaps significantly with some initiative and cooperation.
We’re not sure there’s a need to reinvent the wheel by creating a special legislative task force to deal with the problem, as the assemblyman suggests.
Task forces are expensive and time-consuming, since hearings and reports take time and money to bring together. Then the Legislature would still have to agree on which recommendations to implement, which could take a few years. In the meantime, the problem just gets worse.
If the governor, state transportation officials and state agencies could agree to cooperate on the myriad solutions that have been proposed and implemented in other areas facing similar issues, they alone might be able to reverse the trend of longer commutes into Albany.
One solution that generally has been dismissed as too expensive and ineffective is widening roads and approaches or creating new bus lanes to make room for more vehicles. While it sounds like a simple solution, the result is usually that commuters that had avoided that route adjust their travel arrangements to use the wider roads. They tend to fill the new space quickly, and commute times don’t actually improve much. Also, wider approaches don’t solve the problem of funneling too many vehicles into the same small city at the same time.
But a number of other solutions have been implemented that should be considered and put into practice.
One is staggering the start and end times of the work day. Since a significant number of people are entering the city to work in state government offices, the state should look at where some workers could start earlier or later to ease congestion at peak times. Is it necessary for so many state workers to work 8-5 or 9-6? Could some work 6-3 or 7-4 or even 10-7? Some kind of change could spread the number of vehicles out over a longer period of time, reducing the number of cars on the road at any one time. Businesses also might consider this.
A state initiative to study work times could be done internally within individual departments.
Another way the state and businesses could reduce the number of cars on the road coming and going in to Albany is to allow more workers to work from home or to work at satellite locations closer to their homes. Not all jobs lend themselves to working remotely. But with the advances in internet service in the past few years, public and private employers for whom this wasn’t once an option might take another look at it.
Another strategy that’s worked for some communities is putting more public transportation on the road. Convincing people to abandon the convenience and comfortability of their cars to start taking buses or to carpool to work isn’t as easy as it sounds. But making it available and promoting it, perhaps with cost-saving incentives, would be a start. State government and large businesses also could employ their own exclusive buses and have workers meet at a common location outside the core congestion areas. That’s been tried with some success.
To help reduce the delays caused by accidents and disabled vehicles, some communities have increased the number of freeway service patrols to help clear away vehicles from the traffic lanes more quickly.
Construction work is also sometimes a problem that contributes to delays, and the state does try to do work at night and weekends and other off-peak hours. Where they don’t do that now, maybe it’s time to expand the practice.
One way commuters could help themselves immediately is to take advantage of phone apps such as Waze, Google Maps, Inrix, Mapquest and others to let them know about potential delays and identify alternative routes. The state could help by expanding its traffic-information capacity to motorists by installing more cameras, initiating more alerts and suggesting feasible alternative routes.
Something has to be done to bring down the commute times into Albany.
Fortunately, there are reasonable, workable solutions that won’t require building more highways to accommodate the traffic.
If the state can get its act together and make some of these changes, it can make the commute for thousands of local motorists a little bit more tolerable.
How about it?