DELMAR — The Bethlehem Town Board is all but set to place its bond resolution for the Delaware Avenue Complete Streets and Road Diet Project to the November ballot during Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2.
Board members are expected to pass the resolution when it meets tonight, Wednesday, July 28, at 6 p.m.
The agenda item marks the final step in an elaborate plan to present the referendum in front of the most voters. The Democrat-heavy board has argued against holding a special vote after a May petition drive forced what was a passive referendum to go before voters.
The Town Board first voted to pass a $5.2 million bond resolution that would approve funding of the road diet. Business owners, including those in Delaware Plaza, have long protested against the project over concerns it would choke off customer traffic. In May, those same proprietors aided a successful petition drive to force the resolution to a referendum at a special election by no later than August.
With the Town obligated under state law to hold a special election, Town Attorney Jim Potter shared an option that would instead allow the board to introduce the referendum in November at the behest of Town Supervisor David VanLuven.
It first required the Town Board to repeal its original resolution vote, followed by a vote tonight to hold a referendum without petition.
The date switch discussion has been contentious, with one side calling arguments to keep the election for August as a form of voter suppression. Others anticipate more residents will vote in November than in August.
“I hear a lot of support for moving the vote to November, as it is yours to move. It’s not yours to move,” Paul Heiser said in June. The Republican town supervisor candidate argued it should have remained as a special vote item and not “lumped together with half a dozen state referendums.”
The name of the proposed project continues to be titled Delaware Avenue Complete Streets & Road Diet. Republicans had expressed concern Democrats would change the name to confuse voters. VanLuven once referenced the project with a different name, calling it Delaware Avenue Road & Sidewalk Safety on social media.
Under the Short Environment Assessment Form, the 1.3-mile stretch of Delaware Avenue is described as a four-lane, two-by-two, roadway that is to be modified to reduce the number of travel lanes, “[to] include a two-way center turn lane, and bicycle lane.”
Other changes include crosswalk lighting, traffic signal modifications, striping and signing and “potential posted speed limit reduction.”
Delaware Avenue’s speed limit is 40 mph between the Albany City Line and the school zone in front of Elsmere Elementary — roughly the majority of the corridor. A call to reduce that speed limit has been bolstered in recent meetings, especially by those challenging the need for the road diet. Most of the opposition to the road diet has come from business owners who fear it will choke off their customers.
The road diet debate has been argued over a joint concern for safety. Albany engineering firm Crieghton Manning drafted a town-commissioned feasibility study citing more than 200 accidents along the corridor over a five-year period. Traffic patterns have been scrutinized since the report was published in 2017. Whether the Town settles on a one-by-one with a bike lane, or a different arrangement, is to be decided upon after another assessment by engineers. Nonetheless, the report did include reducing the road’s speed limit.
“Personally, my goal is not just lowering the speed limit, it’s lowering the speeds,” VanLuven has said, arguing that changing speed limits don’t necessarily change driver behavior. His argument was supported by the town director of economic development and planning at the last Town Board meeting. Then, Robert Leslie presented statistics that showed average speeds along four town roads did not change after the speed limit was reduced.
“Changing the signs, that’s nifty,” VanLuven said. “That’s why I personally believe we have to have a more comprehensive approach to safety rather than an overly simplistic approach; which, time and time again, has been demonstrated across the state — and the [Department of Transportation] backs us up — doesn’t work.”
Democrats have argued that voters do not go to the polls outside of November elections. That is why they said the rescinding of the board’s April resolution vote was necessary.
In May 2013, when residents decided through a special vote to keep the town highway superintendent job as an elected position, less than 6,000 people voted. In the 2019 General Election, more than 18,000 residents decided a political race between board candidates Dan Coffey, Joyce Becker and Jim Carriero.
The 2019 General Election was also conducted throughout the town’s 31 districts, allowing more access for residents throughout town. In contrast, the 2013 special election was limited to just one polling station, Town Hall. Then-Town Supervisor John Clarkson had said the Town could not garner enough volunteers to operate multiple polling stations.
By rescinding the vote, it reset the clock as to when to hold the vote. The Town followed similar actions taken by a Long Island town in 1959. Then, the Town of Islip had pushed to erect an incinerator to address its 360-ton daily yield of garbage. Voters shot down separate proposals for two locations. Less than a month later, the board passed a plan to build one at a third location through a permissive referendum. Opponents, however, forced that to a public vote, too. The precedent was held up in court.
Residents lauding the road diet for its promises to include better sidewalks and an additional bike lane have expressed their support for the Town Board’s attempt to move the vote to November.
They’ve argued that an August vote would prevent vacationing families from hitting the polls. Those who have fought against it, including the Town Board’s lone Republican Jim Foster, have been accused of voter suppression. VanLuven had said as much in a recent Times Union interview.
“I’ve heard a number of people say that having [the vote] in August would be tantamount to voter suppression because they won’t be in town,” said Heiser, whose name will be on the November ballot opposite of VanLuven’s. “But, if you want to spend the day by the pool or at Lake George, that’s your choice. Nobody is preventing you from going to the polls that day. That’s completely your choice.”