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EDITORIAL: Fence makes no sense

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AMTRAK IS A NATIONAL TREASURE. Here, the railroad connects the county to the cultural industrial complex down the Hudson. It preserves the wildlife, woods and wetlands along much of the river’s shoreline. The ride along the Hudson River reminds us why we live here. So when Amtrak big shots come up with one of their really dumb ideas, don’t take it personally.

The railroad’s latest screwball notion is a bigger version of a plan concocted years ago in the name of safety: a plan to build a fence from, roughly, Tivoli in northern Dutchess County to the Town Stuyvesant at the north end of Columbia County. It would prevent public access to the river at all but a handful of gates.

A tall, high-priced fence might prevent an accident, although the infrequent nature of death or injury associated with the tracks in Columbia County have not sparked local demands for improved safety measures like a fence or locked gates. Just the opposite–first responders say that if Amtrak restricts access to the riverside, it would create life threatening delays when there’s an emergency on the river.

This argument, which helped defeat a previous fence plan years ago, would probably prevail again in the absence of persuasive new evidence that a fence would shelter us from harm. So that raises the question of why Amtrak went to the trouble of introducing this idea in the first place. It’s not as if the railroad needs more to do when it comes to public safety. Start with Positive Train Control.

Positive Train Control (PTC) is an electronic system that is supposed to be able to automatically slow a train going too fast or stop one that is in danger of a derailment or collision. Congress funded the installation of this technology, but Amtrak and other railroads are behind schedule and PTC is not yet operating. The real problem here may not be foot dragging by Amtrak. Despite the money for PTC, the problem lies in the larger issue of how stingy the federal government is when it comes to funding repairs and improvements the bridges and tracks and other infrastructure the railroad needs.

A few years ago Amtrak produced a document called Northeast Corridor Five Year Capital Plan. The Northeast Corridor stretches from Washington, D.C. to Boston, and includes the branch from New York City to Albany. Some of the bridges in the corridor were built in the 1870s. The report concludes that it needs about $21 billion in the Northeast Corridor to address its aging infrastructure.

Amtrak won’t get anywhere near that amount to handle its most pressing needs. Last month President Trump proposed cutting Amtrak funds in half. And even if crumbs are left over for a few new projects, the railroad’s five year capital plan doesn’t list any of them around here. The plan is silent about the stretch of railroad between Poughkeepsie and the Rensselaer Station, which serves Albany. No mention of a fence.

Hudson is Amtrak’s third busiest station in the state but the big money in railroads comes from hauling freight, not people, and the tracks north of Poughkeepsie belong to the CSX freight railroad company. Amtrak leases these tracks from CSX and shares the line with freight trains. CSX hasn’t taken a public position on this latest fence attempt, although in 2001 the company did propose a similar barrier to river access, which was blocked by public and political opposition.

Germantown, where residents would lose much of their access to the river if the fence plan is approved, has taken the lead in calling on the New York State Department of State to restart the public input process on the fence plan, which is now set to expire March 29. Anyone who believes that greater access to the river is critical to the future of the county should contact the state before the deadline. Details are on Page 3 of this issue.

Who knows why Amtrak picked this fight at a time when it needs all the friends it can get. Whatever it was, this misstep doesn’t change how much the future of the county depends on the success of Amtrak’s passenger rail service.

Germantown has a waterfront committee that envisions an agreement with CSX (or Amtrak?) that permanently expands the public’s access to the river. Creative thinking like that could strengthen the Amtrak’s pleas to Congress and the White House for adequate funding. Riverside access can be a powerful political organizing tool as well as a public benefit.

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