New York Times NYRegion
The New York Times

July 3, 2001

Dispute on the Taconic: Safety or Convenience


Edward Keating/The New York Times
Frequent accidents at median intersections on the Taconic Parkway, like this one at Carpenter Road, have persuaded officials to close six of them in Dutchess County.

EAST FISHKILL, N.Y., July 1 A small sign outside the Muscoot Restaurant North here simply warns, "Please stay off lawn." It is intended to protect not the thick grass, but the customers who would otherwise stroll right up to one of the most dangerous intersections on the Taconic State Parkway.

The restaurant's owner, Theresa Burke, explains that she has already witnessed too many accidents on her corner of the parkway, where it crosses Carpenter Road here, just south of Poughkeepsie. "You hear the impact," she said, "and sometimes it feels almost physical. I grab the phone and run to the window."

By her count, she has called 911 at least a dozen times in recent years.

Beginning this month, the State Department of Transportation will partly close six intersections on the Taconic Parkway that have been the scene of dozens of car accidents in Dutchess County. Drivers will no longer be able to use the medians to cross north- and southbound parkway lanes or to turn left off the parkway onto local roads.

Many residents here say the median closings are needed to prevent drivers from making mistakes that could cost them their lives or the lives of passengers and bystanders. In Dutchess County, 10 people have been killed since 1994 at median crossings on the parkway four at Carpenter Road alone according to traffic statistics compiled by The Poughkeepsie Journal.

But the planned closings have drawn opposition from East Fishkill officials and others in this prosperous town of 25,000 that has become home to a growing number of commuters to Westchester and New York City. The officials say that blocking off the Taconic, which is a rough dividing line between east and west in their triangle-shaped town, would create problems for many residents and businesses. 

The five-member Town Board has hired a Manhattan law firm Sive, Paget & Riesel to fight the closings at Carpenter Road and two other intersections, Hosner Mountain Road and Arthursburg Road, which town officials say would have the worst effect. The board decided not to challenge the closings at Bogardus Lane, Stormville Road and Todd Hill Road. No legal action has been taken yet.

"It's like saying if there are accidents in Times Square, let's shut down New York City," said Casper Barcia, 85, a retired engineer who lives east of the Taconic Parkway and regularly uses Carpenter Road to reach shops, grocery stores and pharmacies on the other side. "In one respect, there won't be any more accidents, but it's hurting everyone on this side."

The 105-mile Taconic Parkway, which was built in sections starting in the 1930's, was designed to offer a scenic, leisurely drive to the lush green parks dotting the Hudson Valley. But in recent decades, as development has spread north, the curving road has become a major commuter route jammed with thousands of cars. 

Peter Idema, the town supervisor of East Fishkill, agrees that something must be done about the Taconic intersections, but he said that closing the medians would only divert heavy traffic onto local roads. "What you're doing is putting more traffic on intersections that are just as dangerous for those who don't pay attention as the Taconic crossings," he said. 

Instead, Mr. Idema and the Town Board have suggested building an interchange at the Carpenter Road intersection and an underpass at Hosner Mountain Road, among other things.

Michael R. Fleischer, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, said the median closings were necessary to prevent more accidents while the agency considered permanent solutions, like the suggested interchange at Carpenter Road. A task force of state traffic engineers and designers has been appointed to work with community leaders to review the options.

In the meantime, Mr. Fleischer said, the transportation agency plans to ease the transition by marking detour routes and possibly installing traffic lights and temporary turn lanes. "It's not an easy, simple thing to do," he said, "because the community has legitimate concerns about the closings."

But increasingly, those concerns have been countered by outside voices.

Jody Morrison, a Manhattan resident whose 15-year-old daughter, Chelsea, was killed last year while riding in a car at an intersection at Hibernia Road in Clinton, has fiercely lobbied to close all median crossings on the parkway. 

"This is not about local inconvenience," she said. "This is about people dying, this is about the death of my daughter."

After an emotional appeal by Ms. Morrison, the Dutchess County Legislature called three public meetings and passed a resolution in March urging that median crossings on the Taconic be eliminated. "You treat the Taconic like a river," said Dave Kelly, a legislator who is chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee. "You cross it in a few spots with bridges." 

On Carpenter Road, Ms. Burke and many of her neighbors support the median closing even though it may force them to drive a few miles out of their way to get home using an overpass or underpass. "I believe that 90 percent of the accidents happen because of the crossing," Ms. Burke said on a recent afternoon in front of her restaurant. "Driver error is involved, but if there wasn't a crossing, they wouldn't have the chance to make that error."

They say the median closings will help save lives and not just those of drivers.

Fred and Lynn Robbins, who live on Carpenter Road, have been trying to close the intersection for three years to reduce the heavy traffic that speeds by on the narrow, two-lane road. They mobilized neighbors and bombarded transportation officials and politicians with letters, phone calls and a petition. Then, last year, their 13-year-old son, Spencer, was almost hit by a minivan while getting off a school bus.

"I was shaking two hours later from that, I was so scared," Spencer Robbins recalled. "I don't feel safe going out to get the mail anymore. The cars scream by you going 60 and 70 miles an hour, and they're a foot away from you."