New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders announced an agreement Monday to improve rail safety measures across the state. A number of Hudson Valley lawmakers have been pushing for such legislation in the wake of a fatal collision in Westchester County last year.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein announced the agreement, which includes initiatives to reduce the risk of collisions at grade crossings. The legislative deal contains four pieces. One will require frequent coordinated inspections of traffic control devices at highway-rail crossings by state and local officials. Another imposes tougher penalties for repeat offenders who fail to comply with safety regulations. Hudson Valley Senator Terrence Murphy supports both and applauds their inclusion in the agreement.
“After looking into it and realizing that the municipalities are in control of the lights and the railroad companies are in control of the barriers, common sense would have one hand talking to another. So this is part of the objective is get everybody on the same page and let these people know that anybody who’s going to try and race through those barriers coming down that there’s going to be penalties for them,” says Murphy. “So, it’s a matter of public safety. It’s a matter of making sure that all the people are safe and that was really the objective of these bills.”
In February 2015, a Metro-North commuter train crashed into an SUV that was stopped on the tracks at the Commerce Street crossing in Valhalla, killing five people on the train. The car’s driver also was killed. The crossing is in Murphy’s district, prompting him to sponsor a bill requiring joint inspections of traffic signals at interconnected grade crossings. Senator David Carlucci also is behind a number of rail crossing safety measures.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy to get people to wake up and pay attention to this important issue,” says Carlucci.
Carlucci, an Independent Democrat, calls the legislative agreement is a step in the right direction.
“I think that this package of bills really complements the legislation that we passed earlier this session in taking a comprehensive inventory of the 5,300 rail crossings, prioritizing them to know which are the most dangerous, which need a minor bit of work, which don’t need any work at all, but if we have that comprehensive inventory, we’re then able to do some of the big tasks like eliminate some of the most deadly rail crossings and get the help from the federal government to back us up with the resources, with funding, to make these changes and make sure we strengthen our rail system in New York,” Carlucci says.
Democratic Assemblyman Tom Abinanti agrees.
“The agreement is a good supplement not a substitute for the first piece of legislation, which the legislature passed, which requires the Department of Transportation to study all railroad crossings in the state,” Abinanti says.
Abinanti sponsored the bill in the Assembly; Carlucci in the Senate. Murphy was a co-sponsor. The governor still has to sign it. One item excluded from the agreement is a bill Murphy co-sponsored calling for the installation of cameras at railroad crossings that would monitor crossing violations.
“With the cameras that I was kind of pushing that did not make it was unfortunate. That got pulled out, I would’ve loved to have seen after working close with the MTA which they were very, very supportive of because that would have made their investigation, God forbid one of these accidents happened, actual footage of it, that they could find out where they’re going right, where they’re going wrong,” says Murphy.
Murphy says he might try pushing for the cameras in the next session. Gary Holmes is state Department of Transportation spokesman.
“So we commend the governor and the legislature for an agreement which highlights this agency’s top priority, and that’s safety,” Holmes says. “The increased inspections will ensure that these crossings meet a high safety standard and the increase in penalties will go a long way towards really changing driver behavior.”
Repeat offender drivers convicted of gate running will face up to $750 for a second offense and $1,000 for the third offense. The measure extends from18 months to 30 months the period during which a repeat offender can be prosecuted. The legislative agreement increases penalties, up to $5,000, against railroad companies for each violation, such as a failure to immediately notify the state of an accident. Railroad companies that carry hazardous materials can face up to $15,000 in penalties for similar violations. Plus, the agreement requires private railroad companies to submit railroad bridge inspection reports to the state DOT on the same schedule as required by the federal government. Again, Carlucci:
“This package of legislation moves us into the 21st century,” says Carlucci.
Governor Cuomo also will launch a pilot program to improve driver awareness and behavior at railroad grade crossings.