Petition drive aims to put Bethlehem 'road diet' funding to voters

Photo of Larry Rulison

BETHLEHEM - Steve Peterson is trying to get just under 900 signatures from registered voters in Bethlehem by the end of next week.

The Glenmont resident has organized a petition drive to force the town to take the uncommon step of asking voters to directly approve bond funding for a $5.2 million highway project along Delaware Avenue that was approved by the Town Board last month.

Known as the Delaware Avenue Complete Streets Project, plans envision reducing a busy 1.3 mile-stretch of Delaware Avenue that connects the hamlet of Delmar to Albany from four lanes down to two as part of a so-called road diet  designed to reduce crashes and improve safety for pedestrians and people on bikes by freeing up space for turn lanes, bike lanes and more crosswalks.

The town is applying for state and federal grants that would reimburse the town for much of the costs.

But Peterson says there will be negative consequences for businesses located along that route, and many owners are fiercely opposed.

"Businesses and residents should now have the legal opportunity to vote on this. It's a lawful process, and let's do it and let the voters decide what they would like to happen," Peterson said.

One of the business owners who is upset is Leeanne Shade, owner of Choices Hair Studio in Delaware Plaza. She says she has friends in other parts of the country where road diets have been put in place and believes it works well in downtown urban areas where everything is compact and people use a wide variety of transportation but not a place like Bethlehem where most people drive to work and to shop.

"We're more suburbia," Shade said. "We're really more of a bedroom community."

She fears a loss of revenue - not just for the business but also for her employees who depend on booking appointments - during construction when traffic will be re-routed, and afterward.

"People get in the habit of going different routes, and sometimes they stick with that and it's not as convenient," Shade said.

The Town Board approved the bond resolution for the road diet project on April 14 in a 4-1 vote, with Republican Jim Foster voting against.

Under town code, a voter referendum can be held on a board decision if enough registered voters petition the town within 30 days. Peterson says the law says the threshold is 5 percent of the total votes cast in the town for the 2018 election for governor, which comes to about 866 signatures. 

Political backdrop?

Petitions have been distributed by local businesses that oppose the project, and Peterson is appealing to residents directly through a social media campaign.

But in today's hyperpolitical environment, the Town Board, made up almost entirely of Democrats, has been critical of the petition drive, alleging it's a veiled attempt by local Republicans to use the project for political gain.

Peterson, a longtime electronic security professional involved in several civic causes and volunteer efforts, briefly served as vice chair of the Bethlehem Republican Committee last year before resigning and says his personal politics have nothing to do with the petition.

"While some say this is political, the fact is that both Democrats and Republican business owners are largely on the record as not in favor of what the town is doing with their plans for Delaware Avenue," Peterson said.

Town Supervisor David VanLuven, a Democrat, says current business owners on Delaware Avenue are being fed "misinformation" about the potential consequences of the road diet.

"New businesses are not interested in that stretch of road," VanLuven said. "They want to be in the Four Corners."

The Four Corners, which is further down Delaware Avenue toward the post office and Town Hall, underwent a major road redesign several years ago that including new sidewalks and crosswalks, curbing and on-street parking designed to encourage more pedestrian traffic and walking to stores, bars and restaurants.

VanLuven also points out that holding a townwide referendum vote is not cheap, although he didn't have an estimate of the potential cost.

He also said that the state was already planning to rip up and replace that part of Delaware Avenue anyway due to the horrible condition it is in - at which time the town will be replacing the water and sewer lines.

If the bond resolution were to be negated, the town would lose out on the millions of dollars in state and federal funding being negotiated.

"If the folks that are trying to stop the bond succeed, the dialogue ends," VanLuven said.