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Chatham wary of big state plans for busy intersection

CHATHAM –Nearly 100 people turned out last week for a public hearing held by the Village Board to learn what residents, business owners and passers-by think should be done with the railroad crossing and intersection at the junction of state Routes 295 and 66 (also called Main Street and Hudson Avenue).

The state Department of Transportation plans to put a system of traffic lights at the intersection in response to safety concerns raised by CSX, the transportation company that owns the tracks and the freight trains that use the line. But a state official said the transportation department will also consider other approaches that improve safety at the crossing, if the village has a feasible plan.

By the time the January 12 hearing at the Tracy Memorial was closed, there seemed to be no consensus on an alternative to the lights, though many speakers expressed skepticism that the state’s plan would make things better.

Mayor Tom Curran opened the session with a brief overview of four options under consideration, starting with the traffic lights, which would halt all traffic through the intersection at the heart center of the village when trains approaches. He also used a chalkboard to show two other plans, one of which calls for eliminating the current railroad crossing and including moving the entrance to Main Street further south so that it intersects with Hudson Avenue next to a sports bar called MJ’s.

Two other options that have not been reviewed by the DOT involve extending Park Row to cross the railroad tracks and intersect Route 295, and another plan that would prohibit right turns onto Main Street from Route 295.

One theme that did receive strong support at the hearing was the plea from business owners on Main Street that any actions by the state avoid the types of construction delays and disruptions that damaged businesses during a major state road and sewer construction project that wrapped up two years ago. Merchants said they could not survive if customers couldn’t reach them because of construction. And several residents asked about why the state and CSX had raised safety issues about the crossing since there hasn’t been a car accident there in anyone’s memory.

Bob Rohauer from CSX said he recently observed cars in the intersection stop on the tracks and was surprised there had never been an accident. “Right now what you have is not a good situation,” he told the public. He said CSX was trying to be proactive and deal with the issue before there is an incident.

As it is now, cars sometime stop on the train tracks while waiting to turn left from Main Street onto Route 295, and many cars don’t stop at the stop sign at the end of Route 295.

“You can’t stop on the railroad tracks, period,” Mr. Rohauer said.

Jim Rapoli, the head of planning for the regional office of the transportation department, said the state plans to use timed traffic lights to address the safety issue, but he affirmed that his agency is open to alternatives.

The state is in the design phase of the traffic signaling system and plans to start work in it July. Mr. Rapoli said that after the safety issue was raised, the mayor came to DOT with the idea of moving the end of Main Street south so that it would pass by the Herrington’s store, swing past the Kinderhook Bank office, cross the tracks and meet Hudson Avenue at a right angle. Whether the state chooses to install traffic lights or extend Main Street, the cost is roughly the same: about $1 million.

The Main Street extension plan was first raised several years ago during the planning process for the major state road and sewer upgrade, said Francis Iaconetti. The extension was not used, and in order to deal with the issue, the state built a new rail crossing at the existing intersection, but the new crossing was never used because it did not meet safety standards. The state blocked it off with metal stakes.

Members of the public asked the board whether it was possible signs could be added instead of lights or a major construction project. “All we need is five signs and the removal of one sign,” said Rich Kraham, a business owner on Main Street who presented a flier outlining a simpler approach.

Several people suggested leaving the intersection alone, though a few did support moving Main Street. And many people were angry that the state did not resolve the intersection problems during the major road work that concluded a couple of years ago

“We should have fixed it if it was possible when we had no roads,” said Mike Bemiss, the owner of MJ’s Bar and Grill on Hudson Avenue. Moving Main Street would mean building a road right next door to Mr. Bemiss’ business.

After the public hearing at the regular board meeting, trustees urged Mayor Curran to discuss the signs-only option with the state. “Most people wanted nothing done, but apparently that is not an option,” said Trustee Lael Locke. She said the board needs to be aggressive with the state in telling DOT what the village does not want.

Trustee Joanne DelRossi worried if the village does not give the state its opinion about the options, the lights would be put in.

“If they are going to put lights up they are going to do it,” said Trustee Dave Chapman, though he thought the board would have more time to negotiate with DOT.

Mayor Curran said the state wanted to hear from the village by the end of the month.

The board may hold another public hearing on Thursday, January 26. The mayor said at the end of the meeting the board would decide whether to reconvene the hearing and will get the information out to residents. As for now, he is hoping the state will get back to him about the option to do as little as possible to the intersection.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email eteasdale@columbiapaper.com.

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