MOTORISTS TAKE HIT ON ROAD PROJECT

SIMONE SEBASTIAN Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Monday, July 19, 2004

Altamont Traffic-calming efforts on Main Street have made drivers anything but calm, leading one resident to sue the project's construction company for $500 in damage to his car.


The $6.2 million road improvement project, designed and funded by the state Department of Transportation, began in March 2003 to smooth over the potholed Main Street and add trees and aesthetic lighting to the village. The effort also hoped to reduce speeding through the business district by constructing a series of ``curb extensions'' -- areas where the granite curb juts out about five feet near intersections, narrowing the road and encouraging drivers to slow down.


But with no warning signs before the jutting curbs, some drivers have been running into the structures, slicing their tires and facing hundreds of dollars worth of repairs to their vehicles.


``Sure it slows you down. You hit a curb and it slows you down real quick,'' said Altamont resident Bill Klee.


Klee said he was driving about 10 mph down Main Street in December when he accidentally ran his Honda into one of the curbs, which he was unable to see because it was hidden under several inches of snow.


The cost of repairs to his vehicle -- including the replacement of a tire, rim and an alignment -- came to $498.62, which he said he expects Rifenburg Construction Inc. to pay. When Rifenburg's insurance company denied Klee's claim, the disgruntled driver decided to take them to small claims court. His case is scheduled for Troy City Court on Tuesday.


Representatives from Travelers insurance said they could not discuss the case because of privacy issues. However, in a letter to the state Insurance Department's Consumer Services Bureau, Travelers representative Gregory Boe wrote: ``Rifenburg has no culpability because Rifenburg had nothing to do with the design (of the curbs). It merely followed the plans and specifications the DOT provided it.''


Tim Conway, the regional design engineer for the state DOT, says that curb extensions are safe and improve traffic and pedestrian safety in the village. By extending the curbs at intersections, pedestrians have a shorter distance to travel when crossing the street, Conway said.


The changing road configuration also causes drivers to pay attention and slow down, he added. In a traffic study before construction began, DOT found that 59 percent of vehicles exceeded the 30 mph speed limit on Main Street and 15 percent drove above 35 mph.


``One of the primary concerns Altamont residents expressed (before construction) was the speeds that were going through the village,'' Conway said. ``The first reaction (to curb extensions) is negative, but after people get used to them, a majority of folks are pleased.''


Klee has been far from alone in his damaging run-in with the new curbs. Ed Allen, owner of Altamont Garage, says business has been good since the new curbing went in. He said he's seen about 100 vehicles with damaged tires and shocks as well as alignment needs after running onto the curbs.


Three emergency response calls to the Altamont Rescue Squad were delayed when squad vehicles ran into the curbs and blew out tires, costing the volunteer service about $700 each time. The extended curbs create sharper turns, making it difficult for large vehicles to turn into residential subdivisions, said rescue squad Capt. Richard Perras.


``If someone's dying, that's a real predicament,'' Perras said. ``I've just been telling everyone to be more careful and hug the yellow line to avoid the curb.''


Village Mayor Paul DeSarbo said he's not happy about the curbs but is at the mercy of the DOT. He has concerns that the curbs create a driving hazard and have not successfully slowed traffic. The village issued about 50 traffic tickets last month, he said, no less than average.


Nevertheless, curb extensions have been growing in popularity across the country as a way to slow traffic through business and residential districts. They have sprouted throughout the state, including State Street in Albany, Conway said.


Jon Carnegie, assistant director of the Voorhees Transportation Center of Rutgers University in New Jersey, said curb extensions typically are effective in slowing traffic. It is a preferred method by designers, he said, because it provides more sidewalk space and area for trees, benches, street cafes and decorative lighting.


Carnegie said that some areas with curb extensions do use warning signs. State DOT said there are no plans to install such signs in Altamont.


``Lighting and landscaping should define and designate'' the curb change, Conway said.