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EDITORIAL: Amtrak can’t fence us out


THERE’S ONE NAME Amtrak should keep in mind as it tries to fence off access to the Hudson River along the Columbia County shoreline: St. Lawrence Cement.

This is not a threat to fit Amtrak executives with “cement shoes” for pursuing their scheme to keep pedestrians off the tracks. Far from it. The public needs the folks who provide this important service.

The idea of new fences and gates at certain points alongside the tracks might make sense if it improves what Amtrak does so well–efficiently, safely and (reasonably) reliably transporting millions of people. But the secretive, know-it-all way the railroad is going about this project makes it smell like a boondoggle.

The plan for the fence came to light last spring and since then there have been a handful of meetings, a protest and a brief period for public comments. But so far it all leads to more restricted access to the Hudson not only for boating, fishing or just taking in the scenery. If there’s an emergency on the river or its banks, new fences could hinder emergency responders when lives are at stake.

These access concerns were raised by the supervisors of at least five of the six towns along the Hudson shoreline in Columbia County, and by Congressman John Faso (R-19th), whose district includes this county and some riverside communities in Dutchess County. But Amtrak has been so stingy with the details that the public can’t evaluate the project’s impact.

Specifics available online say the project plans to install less than two miles of fence and gates (8,600 feet) along a roughly 30-mile stretch of track from Rhinecliff to Stuyvesant. The fences are meant to prevent trespassers and unauthorized vehicles from crossing the tracks anywhere other than public roads with crossing gates.

It’s a plan to keep people safe especially along sections of the track where trains travel at 90 mph. There’s no malice involved. Amtrak is trying to avert a tragedy.

The problem is that Amtrak has tripped over its own bureaucratic feet. What worries the supervisors is that the plan has had no input from local officials and the public. As a result, Amtrak lacks the facts to assure us that new fences won’t make the riverfront more dangerous instead of safer.

The supervisors appear to accept that the railroad will install its fences. What they want is for Amtrak to build them in ways that “mitigate” their impact. They also want more time for public comments. And they don’t like the idea that there have been no hearings scheduled in Columbia County, where the towns of Clermont, Livingston, Germantown, Stockport and Stuyvesant will be affected.

The supervisors of those five towns signed a letter early this month calling for more comments and a requirement for mitigation measures worked out with local government. It was addressed to an official of the New York State Department of State. That agency is responsible for the Coastal Management Program; the Hudson River is an estuary and part of this state’s coastline.

By federal law, Amtrak has to show that its fence project is consistent with the Coastal Management Program. If not, the state can’t approve the project and Amtrak can’t build it. That may sound like just another form, but it’s more serious than that.

In their letter to the state Department of State the supervisors once again call for Amtrak to provide more project details, an extension of the public comment period and a commitment to mitigation measures. If Amtrak balks, the supervisors say the state should reject Amtrak’s application for the fence project.

For those not familiar with recent local history, in the early years of this century a multinational cement company wanted to build a huge cement in Hudson and Greenport. It could and did outspend its vocal, well-organized local opponents. The plant’s foes managed to delay the plant but the cement company, like a fast moving train, just kept forging ahead… until the state Coastal Management Program rejected its application. The company, St. Lawrence Cement, abandoned the project.

This week as The Columbia Paper was going to press the state Department of Transportation issued a release saying that the state and Amtrak have agreed to postpone the next round of meetings on the fence project and railroad officials had agreed to work with the supervisors on mitigation efforts.

That’s good news but it’s no reason for local officials or citizens to assume that this promise of cooperation will automatically lead to a result the meets local needs

The supervisors have offered Amtrak a path toward a comprehensive agreement that’s good for the citizens of Columbia County and addresses Amtrak’s goals. The next step is for Amtrak and the towns to to agree on details of a project with the least new fencing possible. Anyone who cares about preserving access to the Hudson should write to Governor Andrew Cuomo, NYS State Capitol Building, Albany, NY 12224. Urge him to remind Amtrak that without the supervisors’ terms being met, the fence plan is inconsistent with the state’s coastline.

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