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HV Lawmakers Urge Passage Of Rail Crossing Study Bill

WAMC, Allison Dunne

Ever since a fatal crash last year, there’s been increased discussion about safety at rail crossings. Now, an assemblyman from the Hudson Valley is pushing a bill that requires the study of such crossings. The bill’s Senate sponsors also want a study to get off the ground.

Westchester Democrat Tom Abinanti is calling for the Assembly to pass his bill that would direct the Department of Transportation to conduct a statewide study of level grade rail crossings. The Assembly passed the bill last year but needs to pass it again after the bill failed in the Senate. Abinanti’s district includes Valhalla, the site of the fatal February 2015 Metro-North crash, where a commuter train collided with an SUV at a grade crossing.

“We need to look to see if we can improve not just that site but sites all around the state,” says Abinanti. “We have areas that are no longer rural, that are now suburban.”

Earlier this month, Sarah Feinberg, who is administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, sent a letter to states asking that they monitor and test crossing signals and adjacent traffic signals to ensure they’re synched and operating properly. Abinanti says it’s time for New York to make improving rail crossing safety a top priority as well.

“We need to upgrade those sites. We need to upgrade those crossings to accommodate the significant amounts of traffic from our suburban communities.”

Independent Democrat David Carlucci sponsors the bill in the Senate.

“Right now, we have over 5,300 rail crossings in New York state and we’re really flying in the dark. We don’t know which rail crossings are the most dangerous, which ones need some minor changes, which ones need to be eliminated altogether. And the federal government has come out and said, look, we will provide funding, but you need to give us a plan,” says Carlucci. “And as a legislator, as a leader in New York state, I feel that we don’t have the proper information to know which rail crossings are the most dangerous and what changes need to be made at each.”

In a recent letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Abinanti requested that money be put in the state budget to fund a DOT study on how to improve safety at rail crossings. Abinanti says his office’s research shows about $1.4 million should cover the study.

“Drivers shouldn’t be playing a game of chance whenever they approach a railroad crossing. We need a comprehensive evaluation of these often dangerous crossings by an independent entity,” says Abinanti. “And we’re hoping that the Department of Transportation can either conduct the survey itself or retain the services of some expert that can look at the major rail crossings, determine which ones have a potential for significant problems, and design improvements.”

The Valhalla crossing also sits in Republican Terrence Murphy’s district. He is the bill’s co-sponsor in the Senate and says his aim is the following:

“To make sure that we do not ever have another episode of what we had this past February down in Valhalla.”

He says money spent on such a study is worth saving lives.

“To me, it’s common sense,” Murphy says. “Why would you even want one of these railroad crossings to have the possibility of being inadequate.”

Congresswoman Nita Lowey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, says measures in the Fiscal Year 2016 omnibus spending bill included her amendment to increase to $350 million funding set aside for grade crossing improvements. She also has the Commerce Street crossing in Valhalla in her district. Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also has worked on measures specific to rail crossings.

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