EDITORIAL: Turn out the lights

THE GREAT BIOGRAPHER Robert Caro visited Albany a couple of weeks ago to receive a prize for his work. He started his career as a newspaper reporter, and one of his early assignments was at the state Capitol. His book “The Power Broker” explains how modern state and municipal government functions in New York; there’s still no better source. It’s a cautionary tale about how an unelected person with the best intentions, given too much power, can destroy communities.

Caro’s visit just happened to coincide with the reappearance in the Village of Chatham of officials from the state Department of Transportation responsible for a two-year project that repaved Main Street and built new sidewalks. Crews also rebuilt the drainage system to funnel storm water away from the center of the village.

Another centerpiece of the plan involved what on paper was an elegantly simple approach to a troublesome intersection at the center of the village at the point where state Route 66 coming from Hudson bends over the CSX railroad tracks and becomes Main Street. Just before that the road intersects with the south end of state Route 295, a main route to the northeast of the county, the Thruway and Massachusetts.

Route 295 connects with Route 66 on an angle so tight that it strains your neck muscles to be sure no vehicle on Main Street will broadside you as you pull out onto 66.

To remedy that problem, crews built a turnout for vehicles headed from Route 295 to Main Street. They covered it with silly fake brick and installed a railroad crossing arm to prevent drivers from pulling onto the tracks when a train is coming. Then, just before it was set to open, workers pounded steel posts into the street at its entrance to prevent drivers from using the new turnout. That was a couple of years ago.

Nothing has changed there since then, although last year a half dozen people wearing yellow hard hats and DOT safety vests piled out of a DOT van and inspected the intersection, shaking their heads and measuring distances this way and that.

It does not inspire confidence that an agency called the Department of Transportation lacks the ability to design an intersection that actually works. So some skepticism is warranted now that DOT officials have told the village that they will install a complex series of traffic lights in and around the intersection to improve safety there. This plan will cost taxpayers about $1 million.

But wait! If the village acts now, it can have option number 2. Instead of traffic lights, DOT will reroute Main Street though a parking lot, past a busy building supply store and bank, over the tracks at a new spot and back onto Route 66 in a manner disconnected from village history and the patterns of commerce that sustain a thriving community. This plan, too, will cost $1 million.

This sounds a lot like offering the condemned man the choice of being hanged or shot. Gee, how thoughtful.

The agency has already begun planning for the traffic lights, so if residents would prefer the Main-Street-to-nowhere option, they must make their preference known right away or the number of stoplights in town will quadruple overnight.

This is a false and wasteful choice. The village should reject both options as unsuitable for this community.

DOT bureaucrats have made it clear that they control what happens on these roads. And it’s true that the agency must make technical decisions based on the facts. But the facts do not support their approach, which will discourage people from entering the village and spending time and money there for a dubious claim of improved safety.

Robert Moses, the real-life power broker chronicled by Robert Caro, built great parks, but he also gutted huge neighborhoods and manipulated development patterns all in the name of progress. He didn’t conquer traffic congestion, and often he made it worse, leaving blight as his legacy.

The Chatham intersection is awkward, confusing and annoying, but the intersection itself has not caused serious accidents. Some experts would say that’s because it forces drivers to think before they traverse it. If the DOT truly wants to serve the public it will abandon its arbitrary deadline for these two unacceptable options and once again engage the community in determining a solution that works for the people who live and travel through Chatham, not the schedules of technocrats.

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