Two Hudson Valley Congress-members were in Westchester earlier today pushing passage of a passenger rail bill the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to consider this week, which includes legislation concerning rail crossing safety.
The push to pass the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act, or PRRIA, comes nearly one month after a fatal Metro-North commuter train collision with an SUV at a rail crossing in Valhalla. Democrats Sean Patrick Maloney and Nita Lowey joined local officials Monday in Chappaqua, in Lowey’s district, in front of a rail crossing not far from the site of the February 3 fatal crash. Here’s Maloney.
“Well if you look at the crossing here, it’s similar to so many crossings where you have a line of cars trying to enter a larger road and they can easily back up over the crossing. That is precisely what happened in Valhalla. And if the timing is wrong or the line of traffic is too long when the train comes, you could have a potential tragedy here as elsewhere,” says Maloney. “My legislation makes available federal grant money to move these rail crossings, to put overpasses or underpasses in accordance with the local community’s wishes, and 90 percent of the funding would be paid for by the federal government. That’ll save lives.”
That legislation is the Rail Crossings Safety Improvement Act, which is part of PRRIA, and which Maloney announced the day following the Valhalla crash at the Commerce Street Crossing. PRRIA reauthorizes a program that expired in 2009, the Rail Line Relocation and Improvement Capital Grant Program. Town of New Castle Supervisor Robert Greenstein says the Chappaqua rail crossing is not only in need of an upgrade but poised for one.
“And the fact is here in Chappaqua, the scenario is set up for it. Right behind us is Reader’s Digest where the owners had the wisdom to donate land to the town, years ago, to build a bridge, and we own that land,” says Greenstein. “So a bridge is possible. What we need is money. I believe there’s a will to do it. There’s certainly a need to do it.”
Two of the five train passengers killed in the Valhalla crash were from Chappaqua. Plus, the driver of the SUV, who also was killed, worked in Chappaqua. Here’s Lowey on the Chappaqua crossing.
“The grade crossing behind us is unusual because it is tied to a ramp interchange with the Saw Mill River Parkway,” says Lowey. “And because it is so close to Horace Greeley High School, there are routinely backups over the crossing in the morning, afternoon, and many of the drivers happen to be young and relatively inexperienced.
She says until rail crossings undergo necessary improvements, the public should be educated. To this end, Lowey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, has included an amendment with PRRIA.
“I want to ensure that drivers know what to do and, more importantly, what not to do when they approach a crossing. That’s why we have proposed an amendment that would set aside $10 million to build upon existing efforts like Operation Lifesaver for a high visibility enforcement and education campaign,” Lowey says. “My amendment is modeled after the successful ‘Click it or Ticket’ campaign for seatbelts and the ‘Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over’ campaign for impaired driving.”
Michael Kaplowitz is Democratic chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators.
“This is ground zero for the incident that occurred on the Harlem line and this unfortunately is where the effort’s needed to make sure that there’s no ground zero of a tragedy going forward,” says Kaplowitz. “And to the congressman, for the $300 million you’re hopefully going to put in, we’ll take a percentage of that, thank you very much.”
In New York, there are 5,304 grade crossings. And, according to the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety, from 2012-2014, there were 81 accidents, 15 deaths and 23 injuries at rail grade crossings.