Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Taconic is safer, state says

Heavier traffic seen on local feeder roads

By Michael Valkys
Poughkeepsie Journal
Kathy McLaughlin photos/Poughkeepsie Journal
Cars on the Taconic State Parkway last week zoom past the Muscoot Restaurant along Carpenter Road in the Town of East Fishkill, where an at-grade crossing has been closed.

Cars travel in the morning last week along Route 55 in Freedom Plains near the access ramps to the Taconic State Parkway. Officials report they have seen an increase in congestion since parkway at-grade crossings were closed.
The Taconic State Parkway appears to have grown safer since the state closed five at-grade median crossings in the summer, but the closures have led to heavier traffic on some local roads, drivers and officials say.

''There have been no real accidents to speak of,'' state police Sgt. Robert Hogan, traffic supervisor for Troop K, said of the stretch of highway on which closures have been made.

Medians at six intersections between Route 55 and Interstate 84 were targeted for closure earlier this year as a way to reduce accidents on the four-lane highway.

''It's been a definite plus,'' Hogan said. ''So far it's the right choice.''

While accidents on the parkway appear to have decreased since the closures -- state police are still compiling data -- others say they have seen an increase in traffic on feeder roads that lead to the parkway.

''We have seen a huge increase at Route 55 coming off the parkway,'' said LaGrange Supervisor George Wade III. Route 55 connects with the parkway in Freedom Plains.

''We're seeing a lot more traffic, especially in the evening,'' Wade said.

Report pending

Evaluating the impact of the median crossing closures comes as the state Department of Transportation finalizes a long-awaited report on the future of the entire 104-mile parkway, which runs from Westchester County north through Dutchess County to the Berkshire Spur of the New York State Thruway southeast of Albany.

The median closures and subsequent call for a master plan for the parkway's future came after a number of fatal accidents on the Taconic.

The road has narrow or no shoulders, suffers from poor drainage in some areas and has a number of at-grade crossings.

Over the years, the Taconic has evolved from a bucolic getaway route for city dwellers to a heavily traveled commuter highway, used by Dutchess residents heading south to jobs in Manhattan and Westchester.

Drivers have given the closings mixed reviews, with some calling them inconvenient and others lauding them for making the parkway safer.

''I think for some people it's an inconvenience,'' said Susan Kotzur of Carmel. ''But it's better they close them than to have more people killed.''

''It's a whole lot less convenient,'' said Hopewell Junction resident Jody Ronshem. ''But I feel safer. So I hate it, but I love it.''

''I don't mind them being closed at all,'' said Jerry Flory, a Mahopac resident who runs a gas station off the parkway on Route 82.

He said the inconvenience is relatively minor. ''You're not talking about going that much farther.''

Round-about route

Drivers who used to cross at the closed medians now must go to the next exit north or south and then head back to get where they want to go.

The DOT announced earlier this year that six crossings would be closed as a task force prepared the long-term plan to improve safety. State DOT spokeswoman Colleen McKenna said that report should be released in two weeks.

The only median crossing slated for closure that remains open is Hosner Mountain Road. That closure was delayed as officials tried to develop a plan that would not cut off residents on the eastern side of the Taconic from local stores and services.

Already closed are crossings at Bogardus Lane and Carpenter, Stormville, Todd Hill and Arthursburg roads.

10 deaths since 1994

In all, 10 people have died since 1994 at ''at-grade'' crossings along the Dutchess County stretch of the parkway.

McKenna said the DOT is compiling data to study what impact the median closures have had.

She said officials believe the parkway is a safer ride since the crossings closed.

''People were forced to take chances in crossing at the median crossings,'' McKenna said of drivers who would have to cross lanes of traffic to get to the median and then combat more cars to continue across or turn left into oncoming traffic. ''We have made the road safer.''

The median closures bar drivers from crossing the road and from making left-hand turns from or onto the the highway.

Opponents of the closures say they shift traffic to other roads, making them less safe. In East Fishkill, town officials have said they may consider taking legal action to prevent the closures from remaining in place.

''The people who live east of the Taconic are still up in arms,'' said East Fishkill Supervisor Peter Idema. Some residents have complained that the closures make it more difficult to get to local stores and services.

East Fishkill police have also noticed heavier traffic in some areas since the median crossings were closed.

''The main thing we notice is a lot more traffic at the Taconic and Beekman Road,'' Lt. Douglas Lucy said. ''The lines are definitely a lot longer.''

He said there has also been heavier volume during rush hour at Route 52, which more drivers are apparently using since the closures.

''It's moving OK,'' Lucy said of traffic there. ''But it's a lot heavier.''

He said a traffic signal the DOT installed at Route 52 near the Taconic has helped manage the increase.

McKenna acknowledged the closures have changed traffic patterns in the area, but said: ''Problems have been minimal.''

''We will continue to monitor where the flow of traffic is being directed to,'' McKenna said.

Also, the DOT recently decided not to renew the lease of the Sunoco station in the middle of the parkway near Hosner Mountain Road, citing safety concerns. The station, which closed last week, had ramps leading back onto the parkway that caused safety concerns for drivers on the ramps trying to merge with with cars traveling at 55 mph or higher.