Suburban Traffic

Clarkstown Planning Board Grapples With Traffic Study Limitations & Ongoing Development Pressure

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Proposals For Development on Mountainview Avenue, West Clarkstown Road, Main Street in New City, Route 303 Likely To Bring Added Traffic To Already Busy Roads

By Tina Traster

Clarkstown Planning Board members feel they are in a jam when it comes to evaluating how additional traffic for a proposed development will impact already busy and unsafe roads.

“You sit there, meeting after meeting, and say this particular project doesn’t affect the traffic,” said board member Phil DiGaetano.

In recent months, they’ve been asked to review several projects that will dump more traffic on both county and town roads but nearly in every instance without fail the traffic studies submitted by developer applicants and the confirmation by AKRF, the town’s traffic consultants, reach the same conclusion: there will not be a significant adverse impact.

Increasingly board members have been grappling with the hard numbers of traffic studies and the overwhelming testimony of town residents who describe nightmarish conditions on West Clarkstown Road, Mountainview Avenue, Main Street in New City and on state roads 303 and 304.

Hoping to get beyond what the planning board considers a stalemate, it held a workshop meeting last Wednesday during its usually scheduled time to open a discussion on how projects can be evaluated more realistically. Planners from AKRF and Transpo Group of New City, both gave presentations and were on hand to field questions.

“You sit there, meeting after meeting, and say this particular project doesn’t affect the traffic,” said board member Phil DiGaetano. “You’re just parroting what the applicant says. Every meeting I hear the same thing. As board members we have obligations to the people. You don’t look at the whole situation.”

DiGaetano shared these thoughts after Marissa Tarallo, PE, Vice President, Traffic & Transportation Engineering for AKRF, the Town of Clarkstown’s Traffic Consultants, delivered a PowerPoint presentation that explained how traffic studies are conducted and traffic data collected. She emphasized evaluations on a proposal are based on a site-specific analysis, rather than looking at how multiple developments impacts an entire road or corridor.

Board president Gil Heim asked Tarallo to pretend each member of the board was sitting up on the dais for the first time.

“Make believe each member is new and then explain the role of the traffic consultant,” Heim said.

Tarallo walked the board through the process, outlining how data for traffic studies are reviewed and talked about traffic signal design, traffic and pedestrian simulations, street studies, roadway signage, parking analysis and other factors.

Key to understanding how traffic consultants reach their conclusions are “trip generation and assignment,” which is the estimated number of new vehicles generated by a development. However, one enlightening moment was when Tarallo explained that these numbers are based on a nationally approved industry standard, the Institute for Transportation Engineers (ITE). The group aggregates traffic impacts around the country and categorizes anticipated traffic counts by use, meaning the guideline used for a house of worship, or a multi-family development is based on a national average and doesn’t necessarily jive with local realities.

While Tarallo’s presentation was thorough, it left the board hungry for additional tools to deal with the impact of developments. In response, she raised the notion of the town making fundamental changes through its zoning code or implementing “Fair Share” programs, which determine the costs of improving a road or corridor in advance of any development, and subsequently having developers fund their fair share of the cost of improvement as a condition of planning board approval. Town Planner Joe Simoes said such a provision had been written into the zoning for the Nanuet TOD (transit orientated development) zone for street beautification and amenities.

Tarallo also pointed out that many municipal governments set their own standards to determine how “potential significant impacts” are defined. In discussing Mountainview Avenue, for example, the traffic consultant said any additional traffic on the winding, built road “cannot be mitigated.”

The planner said, “Mountainview Avenue is 22 to 33 feet. You’d have to take someone’s property to fix it. Nothing can be taken. The road can’t be improved. There’s nowhere for the traffic to go.”

Clarkstown planning board members do in fact have a tool in their toolbox they rarely if ever use: a positive SEQRA declaration on projects that have wide-ranging impacts, including traffic and safety. Traditionally, however, they focus on traffic and traffic studies, which they say have tied their hands. Planning Boards are charged with reviewing potentially significant impacts of new developments under New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act and AKRF reviews developer submissions for accuracy and impact, as well as assessing mitigation measures proposed by developers.

SEQRA also looks at other factors aside from traffic. Planning boards are required to look at environmental issues, historic archaeology, wetlands, noise, air pollution, wildlife corridors, community character, and a host of other factors that could derail a project if the impacts cannot be mitigated. At a minimum, planning boards could request additional and sometimes costly studies be done by developers. However, most applications before the board boil down to a discussion about traffic.

The three-hour workshop meeting also included discussion of an $850,000 grant by New York Metropolitan Transportation Council for Rockland County and Clarkstown to study the stretches of Routes 303 and 304 that run through the town. The Transpo Group of New City were hired to coordinate the analysis, which has just begun and is expected to take about two years to complete. The study will consider safety issues, crash and fatality histories, infrastructure condition, future warehouse developments, trucking, congestion, traffic signal improvements, and cycling and pedestrian needs.

The grant will enable the town to also review speeding, the needs of senior housing and school related traffic, grading, and bus usage on both roads. Once completed, the study will be presented to the New York State Department of Transportation, which owns the roads and many of the rights-of way along the roads, to pay for and implement the planned improvements.

Transpo Group was instrumental in the re-zoning of the Nanuet TOD (which has yet to see any development) from Light Industrial to a Transit Oriented Housing and Mixed-Use Development, as well as last year’s rezoning of New City’s North Main and South Main Streets. The rezoning considered both traffic and parking when allowing residential development in the commercial zones along Main Street and allowing increased height and density on the east side of North Main and South Main where several strip centers have already put forth redevelopment plans.