Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dysfunction Junction: What’s Your Function?

Dysfunction Junction INtersection Routes 73 and 9They call it “Crazy Corners” or “Spaghetti Junction” or “Dysfunction Junction.”

For years I’ve driven through the unique, bizarre intersection at Routes 9 and 73 in New Russia, a hamlet of Elizabethtown. For years, I’ve wondered: who on earth designed this crazy confluence, and why?

Today, the route gets about 3,200 vehicles per day, according to the state Department of Transportation, many of which are occupied by hikers, climbers or skiers heading to the High Peaks.

Those who see it for the first time are usually, at least, surprised. When Route 73 hits Route 9, the lanes split off in separate directions, crossing each other in a crazed and seemingly random pattern before coming together again. Even after driving through it for 20 years, I still get confused about where to look for oncoming traffic.

After another surreal experience driving through Dysfunction Junction recently, I decided to investigate. Whose idea was this, anyway, and what’s the point?

My first stop was Peter VanKeuren, public information officer for the state Department of Transportation in Albany. After a little research, he explained that the intersection was built in 1958, using a design that has been instituted (with slightly variations) in other areas, such as Cairo down in the Catskills. That was already news to me, because I always thought it had something to do with preparations for the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.

According to an engineering book at the time, the design is a “bulb type-T intersection” that “favors the heavier right-turn movement from the upper to the lower left leg of the intersection. Sight distances are excellent and approach speeds are approximately 40 miles per hour.”

VanKeuren, however, was unable to explain why this intersection was chosen for this spot. The Cairo intersection, which I’ve driven through on numerous occasions, involves lanes that are already divided, so it’s less jarring. The New Russia intersection, on the other hand, is just a simple, two-lane country road.

A conversation with Conrad “Connie” Hutchins, historian for E-Town, shed some more light.

The intersection, he reminded me, was built long before the Northway, which was wasn’t completed until the late 1960s. Of course!

Before the Northway, Route 9 was the main artery between Albany and Montreal. The road was filled with motels and restaurants to accommodate the traffic. And the previous intersection — a simple stop sign — would occasionally back up with cars, according to locals alive at the time.

“Route 9 was busy,” Hutchins said of the time. “It would be a real mess if we had the traffic now that we had then.”

Taking that into account, this intersection makes sense for the time. The design allows Route 9 traffic to flow through without stopping, while anyone continuing on 73 would have to wait. Nowadays, they’d probably throw in a roundabout instead, but in the 1950s such an idea would have been seen as so foreign.

At the time the intersection opened, locals didn’t really take much notice of it, said Nancy Doyle, whose husband Walter worked on its construction. “If you follow the signs, it’s no big deal,” she said.

Calvin Wrisley, 61, a lifelong resident of the town, says he doesn’t remember any bad accidents occurring there. “I think it’s fairly safe.”

Of course, now the intersection makes less sense. Most traffic is heading not northeast on Route 9, but northwest on 73 — especially on weekends. And today’s drivers, used to traffic circles and traffic lights, are often flummoxed when they are confronted with this intersection for the first time.

Looking back, the choice certainly seems at least a bit short-sighted. After all, plans for the Northway were already underway when this intersection was being constructed. Did no one think: “Hey, when the Northway opens, traffic on Route 9 will be totally different…”

Still, if it’s any consolation, the state won’t be using this design anymore. Not because it’s unsafe or, yes, dysfunctional. But for another reason, says VanKeuren: it takes up too much space.

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Alan Wechsler writes about outdoor recreation and is a regular contributor to Adirondack Explorer.

Alan has been coming to the Adirondacks since his uncle took him on his first backpacking trip—with wet snow, followed by temperatures down to zero degrees—at age 15. He says he still hasn’t learned his lesson.

Today, his frequent adventures into the park include mountain-biking, skiing (cross-country and downhill), hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and climbing (both rock and ice). A long-time newspaper reporter and avid outdoor photographer, he also writes for a number of regional and national magazines about the outdoors and other issues. Alan’s piece for Adirondack Life, Ski to Die, is an International Regional Magazine Association first-place feature-writing winner.

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