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Crash Diet

Fiscal responsibility in Albany means that there isn’t enough cash to go around

by Erin Pihlaja on November 21, 2013

The Albany Common Council passed Mayor Jerry Jenning’s last budget this past Monday night (Nov. 18). There were some winners and losers, and some were left wondering what other projects will be on the chopping block in the fight for funding.

The $171 million budget came in at $500,000 less than the previous one. Out were raises for city employees and funding for SNUG, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping gun violence. To close a gap between spending and revenue, the city will have to dip into its $18 million fund balance, described by mayor-elect Kathy Sheehan as a “rainy day fund” to be used for unexpected costs, to the tune of almost $10 million.

Albany has planned to borrow around $18 million as part of the Five Year Capital Plan, which began in 2013, but Sheehan would like to see the amount of borrowed money shrink a bit. “We have to be able to pay our bills, and we have to find savings somewhere else,” she said. “We have to put together a responsible and practical budget. There is $18 million borrowed and we can’t do that. We have to look at what we can responsibly borrow going forward, and at other opportunities where we can find funding for these projects.” She added that maintaining the city’s strong credit rating is a priority.

One project that had unofficially been slated by Jennings to receive funding but wasn’t in the Capital Plan, is the Madison Avenue Road Diet.

“It wasn’t in the 2013 five year plan because it was in the middle of a feasibility study at the time,” said Leah Golby, Common Council member for Albany’s 10th Ward. Now, the funding for the project is no longer a sure thing.

The report from the study for the Madison Avenue Road Diet was published in February of 2013. The area studied was Madison Avenue from Lark Street to South Allen Street, and continues onto Western Avenue until Manning Boulevard. From the report issued after the study: “A ‘Road Diet’ is when a road is reduced in the number of travel lanes and/or the effective width. The reallocation of space can result in improved safety for cyclists by providing dedicated space on the roadway; for pedestrians by reducing the potential vehicle conflicts; and for vehicles by providing clear delineation and fewer decision points.”

“It was deemed viable by the contractor who did the study,” said Golby, who views the project as an “investment” for Albany. And others agree with her.

Becky Puritz, an Albany resident and employee at Downtube Bicycle Works (466 Madison Ave., Albany), frequently commutes on her bicycle and described some streets in Albany as “harrowing.” In addition to her desire to see adaptations to the streets to make them safer, she believes that making them friendlier to cyclists would create an economic boom for businesses along the corridor.

She cited studies conducted in California, Mississippi, Indiana, and in New York City that showed that in areas trafficked by pedestrians and cyclists, revenues increased for businesses and home values increased.

In regard to the plan losing funding, she said, “It freaks me out that we might not be able to do it. This is the next step, there’s a narrow window of opportunity and I don’t want to miss that. Over time, this is an economic positive for the city.”

Dennis Gaffney, an Albany resident and journalist, had similar sentiments. The self-described “casual cyclist,” who has written about the subject of road diets for The New York Times, said, “Albany is not bike-friendly yet.”

The Road Diet report stated: “The analysis included the review of 481 crashes over a three year period from November 1, 2008 through October 31, 2011.” The data indicated the following, “[Fifty-five percent] of crashes in the corridor are of a type potentially correctible by a road diet (24-percent rear-end and 31-percent sideswipe)” and that 32 crashes (7 percent) involved pedestrians or cyclists.”

“The biggest thing is to provide safer streets,” Gaffney said. “The primary role of government is to protect its people and this road diet does that on Madison Avenue. I’m not sure now it should be paid for but it should be a priority.”

Sheehan has stated that she supports the road diet, but would like to seek out other ways to fund it, instead of borrowing the money. Golby is afraid that that approach will mean the end of the project.

One suggested alternative method that Golby is uncertain of is to apply for grants that will match funding. “I’m a grant writer by trade,” she said. “If you don’t have the money set aside for matching funds, you don’t get it.”

She would like to see some of the borrowing from the Capital Plan be reassessed. “This is different than borrowing for a truck or a vehicle,” she said, in reference to the Department of General Services whose proposed borrowing totaled almost $12 million for one year alone. She added that “the council is leaning in the direction of reducing borrowing to no more than $12 million total.”

Golby noted that she expected to compromise in the name of fiscal responsibility, but the money spent on the Madison Avenue Road Diet was money that would eventually come back. “It’s an investment and it will pay for itself.”