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EDITORIAL: Fencing plan foiled

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AMTRAK BLINKED. The national passenger railroad was all set to build fences and locked gates that would keep pedestrians and emergency responders from reaching the shoreline of the Hudson River in Germantown and other riverside communities. Now, poof! The urgent need for fences is suddenly not urgent at all.

Instead, Amtrak has decided its fence can wait for a five-year “corridor plan” that it will coordinate with state agencies to improve safety up and down the tracks Amtrak uses on the east bank of the Hudson. To read Amtrak’s brief statement about its change of plans and its willingness to work with local and state officials you might think this was the whole idea to begin with.

It wasn’t. It took a community effort that started with an ad hoc local group now called the Waterfront Advisory Committee of the Town of Germantown along with first responders; then Scenic Hudson, the largest regional environmental organization; and then the town supervisor of Germantown and other municipal leaders including the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, the local member of the state Assembly, the state Department of Transportation and the state Department of State and the county’s Congressman.

There were others, but you get the idea. The people spoke out and at this moment they have stopped an unwanted, unneeded project in its tracks.

The oddest part of this whole saga is that Amtrak is one of the greatest manmade assets this region has. It bears repeating that the Hudson Amtrak station is the third busiest rail passenger stop in all of New York State, transporting over 200,000 visitors to and from the City of Hudson every year.

Amtrak also has an excellent safety record in terms of passengers and the general public.

But ordinary people got mobilized to push back last year after Amtrak once again dusted off its plans for fences that would cut off access to the river. These fence proposals have come up in various forms every few years but what grated on the public consciousness this time around was the scale of the proposal and the way the railroad excluded the public from participating in a project that would clearly have an impact on their lives.

That’s not the way democracy is supposed to work even when the public is dealing with a government sanctioned monopoly like Amtrak.

Last week’s announcement by Amtrak that it has withdrawn its application to the state for authority to install the fences is a reminder that democracy still works. It also revealed that the DOT and the state Department of State pulled the plug on this plan. That may have been a political decision based on the outcry over Amtrak’s flawed process or it could have been a practical reaction to fences that won’t achieve what Amtrak promised.

You can’t ignore the possibility that politics played a role, but when you consider the fence plan on its questionable merits, you have to ask: What were they thinking? We know from experience that physical barriers–fences, walls… even oceans–don’t stop determined people. The barriers just reroute them.

What happens when rescue squads or firefighters need to pass through damaged or locked gates that can’t be opened quickly? And what’s the evidence that fences of the type Amtrak envisioned are any more effective than warning signs and crossing bars?

Amtrak is right to want to protect the public. But the rail line has a lot of work to do to convince people that new fences are the best way to achieve that goal. And yet, you can bet that Amtrak will return 5 or 10 years from now, maybe sooner, with a new set of fence plans that they’ll promise are guaranteed to reduce the risks of crossing the tracks.

Sixty years ago rail passengers could still see the rusting frames of slender pedestrian walkways over the tracks on rural stretches south of Poughkeepsie. These scaffold-like walkways rose maybe 15-to-20 feet above the tracks and were just wide enough for two people to pass. Perhaps they too were built as an attempt improve safety. As scary as they seemed to a child back then, they might have worked for a time. The same might be said now of fences.

We don’t know whether Amtrak’s next proposals will be sober or silly, but the next time the fence advocates reappear the first thing to remind them is that this state and its citizens still embrace a fundamental, bipartisan principle for projects along the Hudson: The river and access to it comes first.

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