Agencies dither over river access

MY FATHER TOOK ME to the Poughkeepsie station to see the last steam engine on the New York Central Railroad. It was big, shiny and black, and it snorted like a beast from my worst pre-school nightmares. Some people might wax romantic about the steam era. I felt relieved knowing that nasty machine was going away for good.

Despite our trip to the station, my father had little good to say about coal-fired trains. He remembered how every time a locomotive chugged past the riverside factory where he worked he would have to brush the soot off the blueprints on his drafting table.

 

The factories along the banks of the Hudson disappeared not long after steam engines, and their departure, coupled with a growing public awareness of how thoughtlessly humans had polluted one of the world’s great rivers, has led to a vastly cleaner, healthier and more attractive estuary and shoreline. If only there were more places for the public to enjoy them.

Depending on how you measure it, Columbia County has a coastline of at least 30 miles. But there are only six or seven points where the public has access to the river. One of those places is Ferry Road, a short country lane off of Route 9J in the Town of Stuyvesant. A ferry once shuttled between Coxsackie on the west side of the river and the bustling settlement at and around the road’s end at Nutten Hook.

The environmental organization Scenic Hudson purchased Nutten Hook years ago, and the site is managed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as an aptly named “unique area.” It provides a serene spot for visitors to appreciate the river and all that surrounds it. But like almost every inch of shoreline from the Bronx to Rensselaer, there’s one major obstacle that limits unfettered access to the water’s edge: the railroad tracks.

Amtrak trains rip by the intersection of 9J and Ferry Road at speeds of 80 mph or more, but when you turn off the highway onto Ferry Road, your wheels practically hit the rails. There’s no margin for error if a train is coming either direction. There hasn’t been an accident yet, so maybe it’s scary enough to convince drivers to behave.

The state Department of Transportation doesn’t see it that way; it has decided that the crossing must be closed. But that would mean that the state would have to toss the handful of Ferry Road residents out of their homes, and it would impede access to the river. Well, safety comes first, right?

Yes, except it gets really complicated. A short distance north on 9J is another access point with a railroad crossing that’s much safer. It now leads to a parking area and a trail to Nutten Hook. That resolves the visitor access issue, but it still leaves the fate of the Ferry Road homes in doubt.

At one point the DEC decided it could build a one-lane road from the northern access point to Ferry Road, creating what amounts to a long driveway that preserves a route for motor vehicles to reach Ferry Road. That seemed simple solution until a well-meaning soul at DEC changed his mind and decided the road/driveway might disturb a wetland.

This vacillation and bickering between agencies has gone on for a decade and a half, and it will continue for at least another two years, because that’s the deadline a state administrative law judge recently gave the agencies to come up with a new solution.

The judge’s decision thwarts the DOT’s plan to force residents from their historic Ferry Road homes, and maybe it will give the DEC folks time to come to their senses. But what does it do for taxpayers, who must pay bureaucrats and technicians to review the same information that has already led to conflicting conclusions by both agencies?

It’s unlikely even two more years will lead the DEC and DOT to a reasonable compromise. The timeline depends more on what happens after January 1, 2011, when a new state government takes office. That’s because Ferry Road is neither a technical nor a regulatory issue anymore. It’s strictly political.

A new governor and local legislators must direct the two state agencies to end their turf war and create a safer access route to Ferry Road, one that preserves both the right of the homeowners to their properties and the right of the public to reach a natural treasure. 

 

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