Groups concerned with Amtrak’s proposal to gate off parts of the Hudson River proposed an alternative Saturday they hope will allow access to the river while ensuring pedestrian safety.
Amtrak wants to construct a mile-and-a-half of fencing between its tracks, which hug the east side of the Hudson River, and the mainland to protect what the proposal calls “trespassers” — those wanting to get to the river who must cross the tracks to do so.
The fences would be 8 feet tall and constructed of iron.
Amtrak submitted the proposal for approval by the New York State Department of State (DOS) in January 2018. The plan also seeks to erect gates on an Amtrak maintenance road on the Columbia-Dutchess County border used by anglers and other riparian enthusiasts.
The alternative plan was part of a report by McLaren Engineering Group commissioned by Scenic Hudson. The preservationist group is coordinating resistance to Amtrak’s proposal among the four municipalities — Rhinebeck, Germantown, Stockport and Stuyvesant — whose shorelines would be affected.
The Village of Tivoli’s shorelines are no longer part of Amtrak’s plan, according to Tivoli Mayor Joel Griffith — or at least the plan’s first phase.
The report was presented Saturday in Germantown to about 100 concerned residents and local elected officials.
The report lays out problems with Amtrak’s plan, including possible infringements on state and local policies, and proposes an alternative — a series of automated pedestrian gates that would close when a train approaches.
The automated gates would allow pedestrians to cross safely at traditional access points, instead of completely blocking off these points like in Amtrak’s proposal, the report argues.
Jen Crawford, co-chair of the Germantown Waterfront Committee, also proposed at the meeting a “rails with trails” path along the existing Amtrak maintenance road, which would allow anglers and river recreationists to access the shoreline.
The report also considers pedestrian bridges at these points but lists their drawbacks: a cost of about $1.5 million each, as compared to $50,000-$300,000 for the automated gates; no ADA accessibility; difficulty of getting kayaks and canoes over the bridges; and aesthetic problems.
Tivoli bought 2.8 acres of land between the Amtrak rails and the Hudson in 2010 with the agreement a pedestrian bridge would be built to access it, but the plan has been bogged down with local concerns, many having to do with the bridge being a potential eyesore, according to Mayor Griffith.
Amtrak’s plan infringes on three policies in the state’s Coastal Management Program (CMP), according to the report, which lays out how waterfronts, including the Hudson River, are developed.
Policy 19 states New York must “protect, maintain, and increase the level and types of access to public water related recreation resources and facilities,” while Policy 20 states public access must be given to the state’s shorelines.
Policy 21 states that “water dependent and water enhanced recreation will be encouraged and facilitated, and will be given priority over non-water-related uses” along New York’s shorelines.
Amtrak’s plans also conflict with the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program (LWRP) adopted by the Town of Rhinebeck, according to the report.
LWRPs are written by municipalities spelling out their visions for their waterfronts. The state DOS must make sure any plans along waterfronts coincide with the adjacent town’s LWRP as much as possible, according to state law.
Safety on the Tracks
Amtrak’s proposal is meant “to keep pedestrians and vehicles out of harm’s way,” according to the plan. However, the Germantown Waterfront Committee obtained incident reports from the Federal Railroad Administration they say show the two deaths along the tracks in the areas where fences and gates are proposed would not have been prevented by the barriers.
Jeff Anzevino, land use advocacy director for Scenic Hudson, said Saturday he did not like to use the word “safe” in regards to any plan to allow access across the tracks, but instead employed the phrase “less risky.”
“Nothing is ever 100 percent safe,” he said.
However, the report suggests the automated pedestrian gates would be as safe as possible. From 2002 to 2011, only seven people were injured at public crossings along the entire Empire Corridor — a train line stretching from New York City to Niagara Falls — and none were killed, according to the report, which cites data from the state Department of Transportation.
“Death By 1000 Cuts”
Elected Officials and others at the meeting described access to the Hudson River being slowly cut off by Amtrak over the years.
Though Amtrak’s plan is to block unofficial crossings used for generations, they have also closed official crossings in past years.
Castleton-on-Hudson Trustee Gina Giuliano related what she called “a cautionary tale” during the meeting about her village’s own battle with Amtrak.
The village, which has been economically floundering for years, had its only grade-level crossing closed in 1999, she said, making the village “unable to capitalize on our main resource.”
The village has been negotiating since then to obtain river access, she added.
Anzevino described Amtrak’s restricting of river access as “a death by 1000 cuts.”
“They closed one in Castleton [on-Hudson], they tried to close one in Nutten Hook. One by one they’re closing as many as they can,” he said. “Now they’re talking about gates and fences in all these other locations,” he said.
The seven points where Amtrak has proposed fences or gates are used regularly by bird-watchers, kayakers, joggers and anglers, who access the river most frequently during the bass run. The Google Maps image of the Amtrak maintenance road, for example, shows about 30 vehicles parked along it.
Phase 2, 3 (?) of Amtrak’s Plan
Hudson Mayor Rick Rector attended a meeting organized by outgoing Congressman John Faso between stakeholders and Amtrak to discuss the proposal last summer.
Though Hudson was not part of the proposal “I was there having an interest, knowing that things change very quickly,” Rector said.
He was leafing through the proposal when he saw a familiar map.
“All of a sudden, there’s a diagram of Hudson,” he said. “… [Amtrak representatives] kind of foo-fooed it — ‘that shouldn’t be there, that shouldn’t be there’ — and ultimately…they said, Hudson is part of a phase 2 program, and this is all phase 1 were dealing with today.”
Amtrak’s plan to erect barriers in Tivoli is deferred to phase 2 or 3, “whatever that is,” Mayor Griffith said at the meeting.
“I’m not breathing any easier,” he added.
Anzevino said the specter of two other phases of the plan “worries me.”
Amtrak’s proposal states the total amount of fencing is in excess of 8,000 feet, but the specific plans mapping out the fences in Rhinebeck, Stockport, Germantown, Stuyvesant, and, originally, Tivoli, only account for less than 1,800 feet of this fencing, he said.
It’s not known if the additional fencing would be in ten locations or one, Anzevino said.
“We’re operating in a bit of a vacuum,” he said.
The state DOS will determine if Amtrak’s plan is consistent with state and municipal policies. A public comment period for the plan closed May 1, but elected officials from the affected towns sent a letter to the DOS Sept. 6 asking for additional public comment periods.
The letter also asked the DOS to “take an interest in how the outcome of this application will have an immediate and negative impact on our communities.”
Scenic Hudson is preparing a letter to the DOS requesting they reject Amtrak’s proposal, Anzevino said, and asking for Amtrak to work with Hudson River communities to map out all access points — whether official or unofficial — along the river.
Amtrak has promised to hold public information sessions in early 2019, but dates have not yet been set.