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Amtrak withdraws fence and gate plan

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GERMANTOWN–Amtrak has put its plans for fences on the shelf.

On Friday, January 18, the passenger rail service along with the state Department of Transportation and the state Department of State released a statement saying, “After hosting collaborative meetings over the past few months, Amtrak, the New York State Department of Transportation and the New York State Department of State, have jointly agreed to Amtrak withdrawing its application on the current Hudson Line Fencing Project proposal.”

The fence plan became public last March, with Amtrak’s proposal to install fences and locked gates near the railroad tracks that would restrict public access to the Hudson River. Several sections of fence were slated to be built in Germantown.

The withdrawal came as a surprise to some officials. “We worked hard to get these agencies to focus on the individual towns rather than a single plan for all,” Germantown Supervisor Robert Beaury said this week. “I believe we achieved that goal, yet I was pleasantly surprised by the decision by Amtrak, the Department of State and the Department of Transportation to withdraw the application and start over. I am looking forward to working with these agencies to finalize a plan for Germantown to balance access and safety before Amtrak submits a new application to the Department of State.”

For Scenic Hudson’s Land Use Advocacy Director Jeff Anzevino it was more about the timing. “The timing of Amtrak’s announcement caught me by surprise on Friday, but I am not surprised that this was the decision arrived at by Amtrak. Over the past year Hudson River advocates established a solid record that Amtrak’s plan for gates and fencing would have reduced river access. As such, the plan was inconsistent with state and local Coastal Policy and could not legitimately have been approved.”

Amtrak’s initial proposal to install fences and gates along the Empire Corridor South, which includes land near or on the banks of Hudson River between the Town of Stuyvesant in Columbia County and Rhinecliff in Northern Dutchess County was made public in March 2018 and showed three fencing locations in Germantown alone.

Since becoming aware of Amtrak’s proposal many officials, including then Congressman John Faso (R) and current Congressman Antonio Delgado (D-19th) as well as community members rallied to voice their concerns about Amtrak’s plan.

Amtrak said the proposed fences and gates were needed for safety reasons. But last year a local group, the Germantown Waterfront Advisory Committee, released Amtrak’s incident reports along the Germantown shoreline during an eight-and-a-half year period. Of those reports, 24 were related to incidents along the right-of-way, and 19 involved malfunctions at the grade crossings. Two of the right-of-way incidents were fatalities and neither involved trespassers.

The Waterfront Committee and Scenic Hudson as well as state and local officials from Columbia and Dutchess counties feared that installing the gates and fences would restrict or eliminate public access to the Hudson River for all the communities involved. For Germantown, this proposal would end a relationship with the river that has existed since the community’s Palatine European settlers arrived. The eight-foot-tall fences would cut-off access for water-dependent activities like fishing, hunting and the views.

Since the announcement expressions of gratitude have been extended to Amtrak, the Department of State and the Department of Transportation by some of those who opposed the plan.

But Mr. Anzevino of Scenic Hudson added, “the real heroes in this efforts are the scores of people who spoke in one voice expressing their connection to the river and the dozen municipal officials who signed the January 7 letter outlining their concerns to the [state] Department of State.”

As recently as December 15 a meeting of fence plan opponents was held at the Kellner Community Center in Germantown in coordination with Rhinebeck and Scenic Hudson in a forum titled “Balancing Passenger Rail Safety with Public River Access.” More than 100 people attended. During the forum options for the communities impacted were discussed. And a 10-page letter dated January 7, 2019 by Rhinebeck’s Town Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia and signed by 11 other elected officials, including Supervisor Beaury, Clermont Supervisor Raymond Staats and Livingston Supervisor James Guzzi outlined concerns, among them Amtrak’s lack of transparency of the process, mitigation requested and calls for the dismissal of the application.

A meeting with Amtrak officials that had been tentatively scheduled for January 29 has been cancelled.

But as Mr. Anzevino noted, “Amtrak has made it clear that they have not abandoned their plan. But we have also been assured that the new plan would address risk along the entire corridor and that Amtrak would involve the public before submitting the plan to the Department of State and the Department of Transportation,” he said. “This is the foundation of public concerns as expressed during this process. Now the real work begins. Scenic Hudson trusts that Amtrak will consider all the public input provided over the past year and include the public early on the development of the new plan.”

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