Bridges give few a link to the many

The bridge to the “Niska Isle” section of Niskayuna can be scary for a first-time driver.
Melvin Burger stands next to a greenhouse as he looks out at the E.M. Burger Farm his family has run for generations on the Niska Isle in Niskayuna. Roy Burger, Melvin’s brother, now runs the greenhouse business. The state is planning to replace the
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Melvin Burger stands next to a greenhouse as he looks out at the E.M. Burger Farm his family has run for generations on the Niska Isle in Niskayuna. Roy Burger, Melvin’s brother, now runs the greenhouse business. The state is planning to replace the

The bridge to the “Niska Isle” section of Niskayuna can be scary for a first-time driver.

It is narrow, as the sign at its base informs, and it arches high to clear long-gone railroad tracks. It’s so high that a driver can’t see for certain if there is an oncoming car until arriving at the crest.

On the other side is a piece of land that juts into the Mohawk River. The road soon unceremoniously ends at the river’s edge with a sign that warns against dumping.

But on this piece of land in the Mohawk are nine homes, one farm and a couple of businesses.

It has also been home to the Burger family for decades.

“I’ve lived in other places,” Burger, 46, said recently, “but this is home.”

But to get to home, the Burgers and others must travel that narrow bridge daily.

The road, Ferry Road, once spanned the entire Mohawk River, but not for long. Ice jams quickly did in the extended structure, leaving the bridge that stands today spanning a small back channel of the river.

Now, the state Department of Transportation is planning to replace the bridge, at an estimated cost of $3.6 million. A meeting has been scheduled for comments at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Iroquois Middle School.

Replacement is the preferred option. The department has already considered and rejected other options, including forging a land route to the peninsula and buying out the homeowners altogether.

“It is certainly a unique situation,” department spokesman Peter Van Keuren said. “It’s certainly not a major commuting route.”

While the bridge, serving only a handful of homeowners with no through highway, is unusual among the 7,000 state-owned bridges around New York, it isn’t unique.

The Niska Isle bridge is among at least four state-owned bridges in the greater Capital Region serving fewer than two dozen homes. All three of the other bridges have had more than $1 million in work done on them in recent years.

To the west, there’s Mindenville and its 12 homes and a farm.

Mindenville is on an island bordered to the north by the Mohawk River and to the south by the Erie Canal. It was once served by two bridges. One was shut down in 1988 in a cost-saving measure and not replaced.

The island now has one troubled structure with a temporary bridge serving its residents.

To the northeast, there’s the Clay Hill Road Bridge in Fort Ann and the Ryder Road bridge in Whitehall. Both span the Champlain Canal.

The Clay Hill structure serves 20 to 25 residences and is under construction. The Ryder Road bridge serves just six homes and was replaced in 2006 at a cost of $1.5 million.

All four bridges were built as part of the old state canal system, and all four came to be owned eventually by the state Department of Transportation. And they share another trait: They’re expensive structures that serve a few.

Still, officials said, they have to be maintained. The homes wouldn’t be there had the bridges not been built originally.

“There certainly is an obligation to provide access,” said Alice Romanych, DOT Region 2 spokeswoman. Her region includes Mindenville.

The only other solution, she said, is often to buy out the properties, a move that would eliminate the need for a bridge.

But that only usually happens when there is little to buy, like one or two camps, not several homes.

“We don’t really like to buy or acquire property unless there’s truly a transportation need for it,” she said. “We have to be careful where our money is spent.”

Links to the past

In Mindenville, Phil Schoff has lived at the westernmost point with his wife, Marcia, for 30 years. The only traffic he sees, he says, is kids who are up to no good and people who are lost.

“It’s pretty private,” he said. “But it’s kind of remote at times.”

He would prefer to have both bridges open, as it was when he moved in. A county road completed last year shortcuts between the working bridge and where the closed bridge came out. But that doesn’t help him much, he said.

The surviving bridge was damaged and ultimately torn down last year, replaced by a temporary structure. The entire emergency contract cost $1.3 million to complete, Romanych said.

Schoff said he sees his home’s existence and the others on the island as a trade-off on government services.

“I pay pretty healthy county taxes,” he said. “We don’t get great snow removal over here. We don’t have a center line in the road. The roads are in rough shape and kind of forgotten.”

Ferry Road in Niskayuna gets rough toward the end.

The proposed new bridge would be built just to the east and lower than the original. The train tracks the bridge once rose above are long gone, replaced by a bicycle and pedestrian trail. The new bridge would connect at grade with the trail.

If all goes as planned, the new bridge would be designed in 2009 and built in 2010.

Near Roy Burger’s farm — everything is near on the small peninsula — lives his brother, Melvin Burger Jr. Melvin farms a little on the side himself. And their parents farmed the land for 60 years.

“My mother and father put their lifeblood and every bit of both their energies for some 60 years into building that operation,” Melvin said. “How do you put a price on that?”

Melvin has a nuisance animal trapping business, something he said wouldn’t fit well in, say, Rosendale Estates. He is also head of the county Farm Bureau, an organization that has had fewer and fewer Schenectady County farms to represent.

Without the Niska Isle bridge, there would be even fewer, he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

Leave a Reply