Dutchess has Taconic's most dangerous stretch
Lawmakers, state officials debate crossingsBy Mary Beth Pfeiffer
The southernmost 13 miles of the Taconic State Parkway in Dutchess County are the most dangerous on the 104-mile highway, with the highest rate of injury-causing accidents, according to a Poughkeepsie Journal analysis.
Putnam County's 13 Taconic miles place second. And Dutchess' 25 miles north of Route 55 has the third-highest injury rate.
The rate, based on 928 accidents from 1995 through 1998, considers traffic volume, length of road and number of crashes.
Sgt. Robert Hogan, area traffic supervisor for the New York State Police, attributed the higher crash rates to speeding, driver inattention and the road itself, which is punctuated by 20 intersections that allow vehicles to cross or enter traffic without overpasses or ramps. Hogan believes many of the intersections should be eliminated.
''It will save lives. There's no doubt in my mind,'' he said. ''The state has to step in and do something to protect people.''
Shifting fatality rates
The Journal's analysis showed Dutchess' 25 miles north of Route 55 have the Taconic's highest rate of fatal crashes. But safety officials cautioned fatality rates can shift markedly with one or two crashes because the numbers are relatively low.
"People are dying," said Jody Morrison, whose daughter, Chelsea, 15, was killed at the Hibernia crossing in the Town of Clinton. "Nobody has told me why this stretch of the Taconic has not been updated (with overpasses) like Westchester and Putnam has.''
Robert Dennison, regional director of the state Department of Transportation, blamed higher rates on heavier traffic volume and speed.
"I take issue with the fact that the cause of the crashes is the at-grade intersections,'' said Dennison, citing driver error and alcohol as
two factors that might play a role. About a quarter of all Dutchess crashes occur at the intersections, he said. A majority of Taconic accidents involve only one vehicle.
"It is dangerous and it does cause us concern,'' Dennison said of the crossings. ''We have, for years, been eliminating them as the opportunity arises and that continues.''
In a study last March, the Journal counted more than 300 crashes at Dutchess' at-grade Taconic crossings from January 1994 to March 1999 and almost as many injuries. Another 20 crossing crashes occurred from April to August 1999, according to the latest available data.
Dennison said several conditions must be met before crossings are replaced. The state must study the impact of rerouting traffic and emergency vehicles, which could cause other safety problems. It must come to a consensus on what needs to be done -- from simply closing crossings to building interchanges. And it must juggle the Taconic's needs against other pressing and costly safety problems.
For proponents of finding other ways to cross the highway, the question is how long the state's process will take. The next planned overpass, at Carpenter Road in East Fishkill, isn't scheduled to be built until 2006.
''The Taconic should be treated like a river,'' said David Kelly, chairman of the Dutchess County Legislature's Public Works and Transportation Committee, reflecting a growing belief among legislators that many crossings are unsafe. "You cross it using bridges."
But bridges are costly. The Miller Hill Road interchange in East Fishkill opened in November 1999 and cost $14 million. The Carpenter Road overpass will likely cost around $4 million.
Of the 24 fatal crashes on the Taconic in Dutchess from 1994 to 1999, six were at at-grade crossings, with seven deaths. Fatal crashes on the Taconic dropped in the last three years. There were two in 1999 and one in 1998 in Dutchess.
But the number of fatal crashes on the roadway nearly doubled from the 1980s to the 1990s, while those on most major highways, such as the New York State Thruway, declined. Traffic officials say the Taconic's usage soared in the 1990s, with a 91 percent increase in traffic at the Taconic's intersection with Interstate 84.
The crossings were the subject of a November meeting between Dutchess County legislators and state officials. While the intersections are the scene of one quarter of crashes, they are the focus of current debate, seen by Hogan and others as the highway's most pressing safety problem.
One-vehicle crashes common
Far more common are one-vehicle accidents. Dennison said about a quarter of Taconic crashes in Dutchess involve collisions with deer and the remaining half are ''linear'' accidents, in which cars hit trees, embankments and the like. The state plans to address those issues by adding shoulders and rumble strips, cutting back rock outcroppings, improving drainage and replacing guardrails.
The Dutchess Legislature is considering whether to recommend the state close some or all of the crossings, which could weigh considerably on future state plans. A second meeting is planned soon to solicit public input.
Only three years ago, the county Legislature, joined by state Assemblyman Patrick Manning, R-Hopewell Junction, opposed closing two crossings at Hibernia and Hollow roads. As a result, the state revised its plan, opting to close Hollow and instead widen Hibernia's median with the Taconic.
Now, however, Manning, the Dutchess Legislature's David Kelly and others are questioning the wisdom of the state spending $8.9 million on the Hibernia crossing, part of a reassessment of the state's approach.
James Hammond of Poughkeepsie, a Dutchess County legislator and member of the transportation committee, said when the issue first came up "I wasn't as sensitized to the situation."
Manning said, "We feel most of these either should have an overpass or be closed.'' On Hibernia, the cost is so high a little more money might buy an overpass, he said. "The number begs the question: 'Why aren't we doing it right?' ''
Hogan, state police traffic coordinator, said the median on the Peekskill Hollow Road in Westchester County intersection was widened, but it yielded no safety improvement. "Cars aren't getting hit in the median (at Hibernia),'' he said. "You're still going to have the same problems.''
DOT official Dennison disagreed with Hogan. But he said the multimillion-dollar fix, which includes closing Hollow Road just north of Hibernia and related paving and realignment, did not preclude installing an overpass later. For now, he said, "there isn't complete consensus'' on the need for an overpass or interchange.
Closing crossings will mean more than inconveniencing residents, Dennison said. ''It will change the traffic patterns on adjoining highways and that will have an (environmental and safety) impact,'' he said.
It is the most recent Taconic crossing death -- of Chelsea Morrison at Hibernia Road on Jan. 23, 2000 -- that has sparked renewed debate on the crossings. The teenager, a student at the Millbrook School, was killed when the car in which she was a passenger was struck broadside while attempting to cross the highway.
Nonetheless, there is still support to keep the crossings open, which state and county officials say they must consider in weighing options.
"I simply do not feel there is any sort of groundswell in Clinton to close all the at-grade crossings," said Fran Monahan, supervisor of the Town of Clinton, which has five crossings. "There would be such an uproar by so many residents of the town."
Steven Thorne, a Taconic commuter, may represent the quandary of closing the crossings. He was involved in a collision recently at the Skidmore Road crossing in the Town of LaGrange. Police report a 17-year-old driver pulled into Thorne's path. And he believes the crossing he uses -- Arthursburg Road in the Town of LaGrange -- is ''really, totally unsafe.''
Nonetheless, he says, ''I would like to see Arthursburg stay open because it's easier for me.'' That's a sentiment shared by many commuters.
Morrison, Manning, Hogan and others say they don't want simply to close crossings while leaving no means to cross or enter the parkway. Rather, they favor a systematic plan to replace selected crossings with overpasses and interchanges -- at a faster clip than the state is now moving.
"The state needs to step up," said Manning.
"I think they can move to a faster process of closing them,'' agreed Kelly.
Peter Idema, supervisor of the Town of East Fishkill, said the town board agrees the at-grade crossings should be eliminated. But, ''Do we believe that all crossings should be eliminated? The answer is no," he said.
There is little disagreement the crossings are precarious. A state DOT study, given to county legislators at the meeting Nov. 30, shows every crossing in Dutchess has a higher-than-average crash rate, with eight having rates five times above the state average.
The day after the Legislature's meeting with DOT, three teenage girls were slightly injured in the Skidmore Road crash involving Thorne.
The driver's mother, Marlene Murphy, said rescue workers had to cut the car open to free her daughter, who was bloodied but did not need to be hospitalized.
"I thought I was burying my daughter that day," she said. "I have always thought (the crossings) were unsafe -- every one of them.''
Red tape delays closing
In 1997, state engineers recommended closing the crossing, which has an accident rate nine times higher than the statewide average and was the scene of a fatal crash in 1994. But the legal and bureaucratic demands of the process -- including environmental reviews and public input necessary to avoid lawsuits -- means that three years later, the crossing is still open. Contracts are to be put out for bid next spring at the earliest.
The intersection is used routinely by students who drive to and from nearby Arlington High School, where the three girls were headed.
Tom Brooks, the school's principal, said many parents tell their children "not to go that way," and to use Route 55 instead. "Anything they could do to close those crossroads anywhere near the high school would be an advantage to us,'' he said.
In addition to Skidmore, the state plans to close three smaller crossings: Stormville Road in East Fishkill, Hollow Road in Clinton (as part of the Hibernia project) and Bogardus Lane in Beekman. That would leave 16 crossings open.
Crash numbers likely have dropped in the past year or so, with the opening in November 1999 of an overpass at Miller Hill Road in East Fishkill, which was the scene of a school bus accident that prompted its construction.
Last May 15, five children, ages 6 to 10, were slightly injured when their school bus was involved in a collision at Nine Partners Road in the Town of Clinton, the scene of two fatal crashes since 1994.
Chris Cordisco, whose 9-year-old son, Christopher, was on the bus, said the intersections, which are sometimes around curves or atop hills, are so tricky that even the most seasoned drivers have trouble with them. "My son could've easily been one of those statistics," he said. "Not a day goes by that I don't thank God."
Parents lobby for changes
Cordisco has teamed up with Jody Morrison to lobby for overpasses and other measures to replace crossings. Many crossings already have nearby alternatives, they contend. The Laidlaw bus involved in the Nine Partners crash now crosses the Taconic at the Bulls Head Road overpass, said a company official, Blanche Temple.
Other crossings with nearby alternatives include:
-- Skidmore Road, less than a half mile from the Route 55 overpass.
-- Hibernia Road, near the Salt Point Turnpike interchange.
-- Carpenter Road in East Fishkill -- where three people have died since 1994 -- near Route 52 and Beekman Road.
Flashing lights were recently installed at Carpenter while plans for an overpass are formulated. The median at Arthursburg Road in LaGrange, meantime, is to be closed in 2003, keeping the eastbound entrance to the parkway open. Carpenter and Arthursburg each have crash rates seven times higher than average.
Hogan of the state police said he believes the DOT is more receptive to the idea of closing crossings because of the work of Jody Morrison and others. The issue is saving lives, he said.
"It baffles me that people will put convenience in front of people's safety,'' he said. "Anybody who disagrees with that, let them come with a trooper on the next death notification we do."
AT A GLANCE