DELMAR — Architects envision present-day traffic congestion with an Elsmere Avenue Extension connecting to a completed Kimmey Drive even with the added development it is sure to usher into town.
Without the proposed roadways, however, traffic will increase as development continues south of the Route 32 Bypass. Residents along Elsmere, Murray and Elm avenues will see more motorists on the street, as will those living along Wemple and Feura Bush roads. Homeowners along Hasgate and Dover drives would observe “significant increases.”
SWBR, the architectural firm retained as project manager as the town proceeds with its comp plan update, projected several outcomes as it presented its assessment of how the two roadways would impact Bethlehem before the town’s Comprehensive Plan Update Committee met Tuesday, March 8.
The plan to create a traffic artery connecting Elm Avenue and Wemple Road was first suggested when the town adopted its Comprehensive Plan in 2005. Since then, the town has required developers to incorporate a spur within their site plans prior to construction.
Kimmey Drive lies within feet of connecting with Wemple Road at Milltowne Plaza. Approximately a half-mile away, an idle roadway stands ready to intersect at Forsten Drive. From there, another 2,700 feet of undeveloped land remains before Elm Avenue.
Presently a dead-end road, Elsmere Avenue Extension has long been considered to extend and connect as a branch off of Wemple Road. One committee member recalled such plans dating as far back as the 1970s. Since then, housing has grown in developments where driveways connect to side roads, permitting a smoother flow of traffic on the collector road. But in 2010, the Town revealed tentative plans to connect Elsmere to Kimmey Drive.
Michael Morelli, then Town Director of Economic Development and Planning, shared the idea in a public hearing on Kendall Square over concerns with traffic congestion south of the Route 32 By-Pass, specifically where Feura Bush Road crosses Elsmere Avenue.
What Morelli called a “little stub” is a microcosm of how suburban life appeared in 1954. That’s approximately when each of the four homes was built according to the online realty site Zillow. It has retained what was once farm country around that intersection. Its preservation is due in large part to the nearly 20 acres of productive farmland both east and south of the small neighborhood.
You can spy how development exploded in the area, introducing more than 10,000 more residents townwide since 1984 through timelapse imagery on Google Maps (https://earthengine.google.com/timelapse/).
Nearly 20 years later, Kimmey Drive is no closer to completion. In the Planning Board’s recent letter of recommendation to the committee, it suggested zoning that would permit increased housing density, providing developers the opportunity to afford roadway construction costs. Otherwise, it said the town should pay towards the roadways as an alternative.
SWBR, the architectural firm retained as project manager as the town proceeds with its comp plan update, provided what it stressed as a high-level, regional analysis. Using regional traffic models and studies collected by the Capital District Transportation Committee, the firm assumed the effects of future development on 126 acres surrounding both corridors.
The first of three scenarios assumed various housing units per acre, resulting in approximately 380 units. From that perspective, the study doubles the density under the succeeding cohort producing approximately 750 and 1500 units, respectively.
“Why would we look at anything other than the three units per acre,” SWBR’s William Price asked rhetorically. “It’s just if this is to be built by the private sector, there’s a $9.4 million item that has to be made — basically your road, along with your utility extension — that has to be built before you even develop a house.”
Leaving private developers to fund the proposed roadways adds costs to each unit. Under the current town code of three units per acre, the cost to build Kimmey Drive and Elsmere Avenue Extension would spread to $25,000 for each unit. Under moderate development (750 units), the cost reduces to $12,300. Assuming 1500 new units, $6,130 would fall upon each unit.
While the committee has labored through the plan update process, it has observed detriments to low-density housing models. They work against the town’s efforts to both preserve open space and to keep available housing affordable. Price suggested a “sweet spot” that allowed for moderate development around both roadways.
“Upon build-out of 750 units, you would not see increases to traffic, or the congestion much more than what you see today, because these roads would distribute the traffic — both existing and future — well across the network,” Price said.
The firm cross-referenced those numbers with regional traffic demands assuming weekday evening peak hour travel prior to the pandemic outbreak. It then developed three additional scenarios that assumed no new roads, a completed Kimmey Drive, and an Elsmere Avenue connected to a completed Kimmey Drive. The presentation did not quote from specific raw data collected by the CDTC.
SWBR’s projections ranged from an increase to traffic flow in the thoroughfares south of the Delmar Bypass without aid from the new roadways, to focusing that growth on those new intersections at Wemple Road, Elm and Elsmere avenues — even decreasing the flow of motorists from Murray Avenue, and parts of Elm Avenue and Feura Bush Road.
Price said studies of specific road segments and intersections would be required to better appreciate the roadways’ impact on traffic flow.