Two state lawmakers from the Hudson Valley are wondering why New York’s transportation department hasn’t finished a rail crossings study, as mandated by legislation.
On February 3, 2015, in Westchester County, a Metro-North commuter train hit an SUV that was stopped on the tracks at the Commerce Street crossing in Valhalla, killing the driver and five people on the train. Now, some three years later, two lawmakers are asking why a bill prompted by this fatal accident that mandates a DOT study of New York’s more than 5,300 level-grade rail crossings appears to have languished.
David Carlucci, an Independent Democrat, sponsored the bill in the Senate that directed the DOT to submit a report on the study to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature by April 1, 2017. He wrote to DOT’s acting commissioner February 9 requesting the study’s results.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t heard from the DOT yet, and we’re calling to make sure that he law that was signed by Governor Cuomo in 2016 is followed through,” says Carlucci.
He says it is important to know which crossings are the deadliest and need the most work.
“And right now, as lawmakers, we’re really flying blind,” Carlucci says. “We don’t know where best to invest the money to improve our rail safety because we don’t have a good picture of the inventory, of the infrastructure in New York state.”
Democrat Tom Abinanti sponsored the bill in the Assembly.
“Why do we have to keep waiting? Why do we have to keep endangering people who cross railroad crossings? It’s time for the state to act. No more excuses. We’re in the middle of the budget process. If the DOT needs money, they should be asking for money to do the study. There’s been no request; there’s been no response; there’s been no action by the Department of Transportation,” Abinanti says. “The time is long gone for DOT to move. If DOT won’t move, the governor should order them to move.”
A DOT spokesman says the agency is finalizing the study and will release it soon. There have been close calls at rail crossings in Westchester County since the deadly 2015 Valhalla crash. Again, Abinanti.
“We’re endangering the people of the state of New York by failing to act,” says Abinanti. “The railroad crossings have been designed for yesterday. And we’re moving rapidly into a new world where there is technology that’s available, there are different techniques that are available to improve railroad crossings to make them safer for everyone.”
In his letter to DOT, Carlucci says the feasibility of implementing design changes, the availability of federal funding for highway-railroad grade crossing improvements and data on recent accidents, are critical components that should be included in the study.
“The railroad administrator for our federal government has said that their top priority is rail safety. And they want to work with the states, but the states have to work with the federal government as well,” Carlucci says. “We have to come with the plans so that we can make that argument that if you’re going to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to rail safety around the nation, we need to show that those dollars need to be invested in New York, and that they’re invested in the right places to eliminate some of the problems that we’ve seen over the past few years.”
On March 14th, a freight train derailed at a rail crossing near a chemical plant in Schenectady County. Officials said there were no injuries.