The December 5, 2023, Saratoga Springs City Council meeting was yet another example of mindless accusations and poorly considered actions by Council members.
The issue was limiting truck traffic on Van Dam Street by placing a 5 pound weight limit on trucks using that thoroughfare.
Following the public comment period at which many of the residents of Van Dam pleaded with the Council to limit truck traffic there, Mayor Ron Kim accused one of his opponents in the last election, Chris Mathiesen of "illegal" behavior in somehow making Van Dam Street a truck route years ago. His accusation was based on unsubstantiated allegations. [JK: Chris's response is at the end of this post.]
Kim claimed that a letter written by Chris Mathiesen, the Commissioner of Public Safety at the time, to the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) in 2014 somehow directed DOT to make Van Dam into a truck route.
During his spirited accusations regarding Mathiesen, Kim disclosed that he did not actually have a copy of the letter he cited as evidence, nor had he apparently seen one. It was also evident that he had not had the courtesy of discussing the matter with Mathiesen before making his public accusations.
All of this performance was for the benefit of the many people from Van Dam Street who had addressed the Council on their desire to place a weight limit on trucks allowed to access their street.
A History Of Van Dam Street and the City's Truck Problems
One route trucks take traveling from the New York State Thruway east to the Adirondack Northway is through Saratoga Springs. For decades Van Dam Street has been one of the roads trucks take to get through the city. In the late 1970s, my wife and I looked at a house on Van Dam Street as a possible home for us. When we realized that the street was frequently used as a truck route, we decided not to pursue the purchase. This pre-dated by many years, Mathiesen's terms as Public Safety Commissioner.
The idea that Mathiesen was responsible for making Van Dam into a truck route is patently false.
I spoke to Chris about what actually happened.
Washington Street is a state road (NYS Route 29) and is a state-designated truck route. The road is narrow. Even narrower than Van Dam St. It ends in a T intersection at Broadway (by Starbucks). The increased truck traffic over the years has made life on Washington Street challenging for those homeowners. In many ways, the problems for homeowners on Washington Street were even worse than those on Van Dam. In addition, the maneuvering trucks had to do to negotiate the turn onto Broadway from Washington was notorious. Sidewalks at that intersection were frequently in need of repair as trucks would routinely go up over them to make the turn. I use the past tense since construction has kept that stretch of Washington closed recently. This could maybe account for the complaints of Van Dam street residents that truck traffic on their street had increased.
To his credit (no good deed goes unpunished), Chris attempted to see how to ease the truck problems. He wrote to NYSDOT advising them of the streets currently used for truck traffic, including Van Dam. He sought their advice on how to ease the city's truck problems. Clearly, Van Dam would be part of a possibly better design.
The critical point here is that Van Dam was already a truck route. It was reckless and without foundation for Kim to blame Mathiesen for the truck problems on Van Dam, let alone say that he did something "illegal."
Here is a twelve-minute excerpt from the meeting of the discussion.
I understand the frustration and anger expressed by the residents of Van Dam. Still, Van Dam intersects with Broadway beyond the north end of the downtown business district and connects quickly to the arterial leading to the Northway. Washington Street, in contrast, dumps truck traffic directly into the middle of downtown. It's hard not to agree that, given bad choices, Van Dam makes sense as one of the city's truck routes.
Finance Commissioner Sanghvi rightly asked what happens next if trucks can't use Van Dam. Where will they go? Public Works Commissioner Jason Golub expressed reservations when the item came up later on the agenda for a vote. He thoughtfully suggested that before proceeding, there was a need for a thoroughly thought-out plan.
Nevertheless succumbing to the compelling and emotional pleas of the Van Dam Street homeowners, the Council ignored these issues and approved the weight limit for their street. I have to express sympathy for the people of Washington Street who will now bear the burden of even more truck traffic, as will downtown Broadway.
A Skeptical Blogger Ruminates About Trucks
The problem of truck traffic has plagued this city for decades. At some point, the State Park and DOT were approached about building a truck route at the Southern end of the state park in order to bypass downtown Saratoga Springs. The response was a resounding no. There are extensive wetlands in that area, and the park does not want the noise of trucks to be part of its environment.
Bill McTygue has recently garnered headlines in the Daily Gazette by resurrecting this plan for a truck route.
Given the history of this problem, this blogger is highly skeptical that this solution will be any more viable now than it was when it was proposed and dropped years ago. I noted that when McTygue spoke to the Council, he was careful to observe the impact on Washington Street that removing trucks from Van Dam would have.
I congratulate the Van Dam homeowners on their success at the December 5, 2023 meeting. Their victory, however, if sustained, comes at the cost of making life for those who live on Washington Street even more difficult and will negatively impact Broadway and downtown Saratoga. It remains to be seen, though, if this resolution will be sustainable. Not only will the new Council now have to deal with the fallout from this Council's poorly thought out action, but it has yet to be seen if DOT will allow this to happen.
Chris Mathiesen's Statement
[This was a letter he sent to Saratoga Today]
In particular, I addressed one of the attacks on my administration as Public Safety Commissioner during my term in office (2012-2017).
It should also be noted that Mayor Kim’s frequent criticism of the Police Chief’s decision to reduce the Traffic Division of the SSPD is unfair. I have offered to sit down with the Mayor to discuss the reasons for that decision. He has continued to ignore my offers.
The letter is below:
December 6, 2023
To: Saratoga Springs City Council
RE: Van Dam Street Truck Traffic
After attending last night’s Saratoga Springs City Council meeting, I did some research today. I have been able to establish the following:
Van Dam Street has been a Designated Access Highway for truck travel since 1989. No change was made regarding that designation during my term in office as Commissioner of Public Safety (2012-2017).
I did send to the NYS Department of Transportation letters on November 18, 2014 and March 4, 2015 to inquire whether the Washington Street/Route 29 corridor from West Avenue to Broadway could be restricted so that large trucks could no longer use that state route. This was one of a number of suggestions that we were considering, including one proposal that would eliminate east-to-west truck traffic on Lake Avenue.
Due to the lack of cooperation from the Town of Wilton, the plan to eliminate east-to-west traffic on Lake Avenue was not successful.
Any plan to change truck access to Washington Street/Route 29 would have required approval from the City Council in coordination with the NYS Department of Transportation. Our inquiry never advanced that far. Because the elimination of truck access on Washington Street/Route 29 would have resulted in that traffic being transferred to the already burdened Church Street/Van Dam Street corridor, we were reluctant to proceed and, especially after talking to Van Dam Street neighbors, we decided not to pursue that option.
The NYS Department of Transportation verifies that there was no change in designation of the Van Dam Street as a Designated Access Highway during my term in office. The actions that Mayor Kim claimed to have occurred as a result of my letters did not take place. Also, Washington Street/Route 29 continues to be a truck route through our west side to this day.
There were no actions taken by the NYS DOT regarding Van Dam Street during my term in office and thus no illegal activity on my part despite the remarks made by Council members during last night’s meeting. Council members have every right to make inquiries with state agencies. As Commissioner, I was in no position to negotiate with the NYS DOT but my department was most certainly entitled to gather facts on what the City’s options were on this most important topic. Had we decided to pursue this issue, the Mayor, the City attorney and the entire City Council would have been part of any formal negotiation with NYS DOT.
In summary, there were no changes in the designation of Van Dam Street as a Designated Access Highway during my administration. The were no ‘illegal’ or inappropriate actions taken by me or by the NYS DOT regarding the truck use on Van Dam Street. Truck access for both the Washington Street/Route 29 corridor and Church Street/Van Dam Street were, up until Tuesday evening, exactly what they were when I came into office in 2012.
I am concerned about the actions that the Council took on Tuesday night. There seems to be no coordination with the NYS DOT regarding the sudden imposition of the 5 ton weight limit. Van Dam Street continues to be a Designated Access Highway which is inconsistent with the Council’s action. Also, there does not seem to be a full appreciation for the disruption that this action will cause and the sudden burden on Washington Street/Route 29 (which is currently closed to truck traffic), Church Street/Route 9N, and Broadway as more trucks will be required to take those routes.
I sympathize with the Van Dam Street residents and I can empathize with current and future Council members having to deal with a situation for which there seems to be no reasonable solution. Good luck to you all.