By Kristin Schultz
“I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’m going to hear the screech of tires and someone will get hit.”
Debra Gorgos is only one of the Niskayuna residents who have reached out to town officials to do something about speeding cars and vehicles blasting through stop signs.
By some estimates, there are 75 children in the Hexam Gardens neighborhood, many of whom walk or ride bikes to friends’ houses.
Gorgos and her family, including two small children, live on Hexam Road, a popular cut-through, especially during rush hour, between ever-clogged Balltown Road and St. David’s Lane, which also flows out onto Route 7.
Gorgos said she knew her street was a cut-through when she moved there in 2012. She did not realize how many cars ran the stop sign at Hexam and Westholm roads.
“It’s a danger zone.”
Across town in Old Niskayuna, Dean Street residents are upset with commuters and neighbors hurtling down the road toward Providence.
Jen Smith has been attending monthly public safety committee meetings since July, and in recent months, neighbor Jeff Layton has joined her. They want a stop sign at Dean Street and Webster Drive in order to slow the rush of cars.
To date, their request for a stop sign has not been approved, but police have conducted speed studies and increased patrols, which have led to speeders being pulled over.
“I appreciate the police,” Smith told Chief Dan McManus and Deputy Chief Michael Stevens at December’s public safety committee meeting. “I love you guys, but the police can’t be there 24 hours a day, but our kids are.”
Layton estimated there are 17 children on the northern section of Dean Street.
Like in Hexam Gardens and many other neighborhoods in Niskayuna, there are no sidewalks or streetlights on Dean Street, which makes taking a walk even more precarious, especially during the dark winter months.
Speed studies have shown that drivers seem to have lead feet on the northern stretch of Dean Street. One car was clocked going 54 miles per hour. The posted speed limit is 30.
Not giving up
To date, nearly 40 homeowners in the neighborhood around Dean Street have signed a petition asking for a stop sign.
Stop signs are not traditionally used to slow traffic, but rather to control traffic to prevent accidents. McManus said that a stop sign at Dean Street and Webster Road could possibly increase traffic accidents if people are not used to the sign or ignore it.
“I’m not giving up on this,” Layton told McManus. “We want a stop sign.”
In Hexam Gardens, residents are reporting stop sign runners to police.
“I don’t mind if people use our neighborhood to get home, but they need to obey the law,” Gorgos said.
Police have increased their presence in Hexam Gardens as well, looking for speeders and stop sign runners. Residents are grateful and speak highly of local law enforcement, but ultimately they know extra police are a temporary solution to a seemingly worsening problem.
Part of the issue could be perception. Drivers may not be in more of a hurry, but there are certainly more drivers on the road.
“Our data don’t support the idea that the speeding-vehicles problem is worsening,” Stevens said in an email. “We feel as the town has expanded in both residential and commercial development, the traffic habits have changed. More specifically we are seeing more traffic in town. Balltown Road seems to have more traffic traveling on it, and in turn congestion appears to be a side effect.”
As development pops up, traffic builds up, spilling over into residential areas. Stevens said there are around 750 accidents per year and the number of fatal accidents are down over the past three years.
Nearly every resident who is concerned about speeding in their neighborhood will inevitably bring up Balltown Road. This north-south corridor runs from State Street, through the heart of Niskayuna and out into Saratoga County. The stretch is only six miles long, but it can take 30 minutes or more to get from a house off Schwaber Drive to Target to get some toothpaste.
Balltown is a state road so while the town can patrol it, local officials have zero say when it comes to widening or otherwise altering the road to accommodate increased traffic. Town government can, however, approve and deny building proposals.
Earlier this year, a developer proposed a 50-unit complex and the corner of Balltown and Van Antwerp Roads. The project was met with fierce community opposition, most of which had to do with traffic and safety. The developer pulled his plans. He intends to meet with residents and go back before the planning board with a different proposal.
When the police receive multiple reports of speeding or other traffic violations in the same area, Stevens said they can employ a variety of measures to address the problem.
Among those measures are increased and targeted patrol and enforcement and conducting traffic surveys. The town has two machines that are temporarily mounted in an area to capture traffic statistics. The machines measure things like speed and volume of traffic.
“Once the device is recovered and the data is downloaded, we are provided with a comprehensive report detailing the traffic habits,” Stevens wrote. “With this information we can pinpoint time trends when traffic speed may be higher and deploy enforcement details accordingly.”
Recently, police have also made use of mobile lighted signs warning motorists of strict enforcement of the 30 miles per hour limit on town roads. The signs have been deployed on Dean Street and Hillside Avenue.
It seems a permanent solution will require cooperation both between town departments and among the town, Schenectady County and the state.
Dean Street is a Schenectady County Road and Chief McManus said he is working with the county engineer to conduct further study on Dean.
“It’s tough,” said Town Board member and Hexam Gardens resident John Della Ratta. “The only thing you can really do is increase police patrol, write more tickets or just have a presence.”
The Planning Board frequently requires traffic studies before it approves new development in town and the Complete Streets Committee can also weigh in on new building proposals. The highway department is responsible for things like road striping and installing any new signs.
Town Board member Denise Murphy McGraw would like to see the speed limit in Niskayuna reduced from 30 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour. That, however, requires approval from the state Legislature.
Although the town has authority over its own roads in many respects, it cannot set its own speed limits. However, it could petition its assemblyman to put forth a bill in the Legislature that gives Niskayuna power to tell people how fast they can go through town.
Recently, the town of Malta won the right of home rule over its speed limits through the legislative process. Niskayuna town attorney Alana Finan told the public safety committee she had reached out to Malta’s attorney to learn more about their success and how they got it done.
In the meantime, officials encourage residents to call the police department to report speeding and stop sign violations.
Stevens strongly advises against obstructing the roadway with cones, bicycles or other barriers as they could cause accidents that the homeowner could be criminally or civilly liable for. He also said residents should steer clear of face-to-face interaction with drivers behaving badly.
“We would never encourage residents to confront a driver who they believe is speeding or they have witnessed violate a stop sign law,” Stevens warned.
To date, Niskayuna police have conducted 10 traffic studies this year. That is twice as many as 2016, though Stevens notes that the department got a second machine this year.
“I grew up here,” Gorgos said. “We moved here for the safety of the children. This is a really big concern. I love the police here. They’re wonderful but we need them to do more.”
She said neighbors have made signs and are actively monitoring traffic, writing down license plate numbers and calling police.
“It’s ridiculous that it takes a grassroots effort to increase safety,” Gorgos said. “It’s a huge issue for me.”