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What you need to know for 08/21/2017

New railroad bridge may be shared with hikers, bikers

New railroad bridge may be shared with hikers, bikers

There’s only one way to bicycle or walk over the Hudson River between Albany and Rensselaer.

There’s only one way to bicycle or walk over the Hudson River between Albany and Rensselaer.

But the Dunn Memorial Bridge, which crosses the river near Empire State Plaza, has steep grades, a winding design and heavy car and truck traffic. It’s not an inviting prospect for many people who want to use two feet or two wheels.

Maybe there will be an easier way for pedestrians to cross within the next few years, when the Livingston Avenue railroad bridge a mile to the north is due for replacement. Advocates would like to see a pedestrian/bike lane included in the design.

Local officials and some transportation organizations are lining up behind the idea, but to happen, it would need to overcome railroad safety concerns.

The landmark bridge overlooks the Corning Preserve riverfront and dates from the days when railroad companies were the kings of transportation. Its stone piers were set during the Civil War and the current superstructure dates from Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. There’s general agreement it’s at the end of its useful life.

It’s going to be replaced as part of the state’s Empire Corridor High-Speed Rail project, using about $50 million in federal and state funding. Along with building a second track between Albany and Schenectady, a new Livingston Avenue bridge is viewed as critical to establishing a high-speed passenger corridor from Albany to Niagara Falls.

With early-stage design under way, the Albany and Rensselaer city councils and Rensselaer County Legislature have all recently adopted resolutions supporting pedestrian traffic on the new bridge, as have cycling and trail advocacy groups. The Hudson River Valley Greenway and the region’s federal transportation funding coordination agency are also on board.

But of the key railroad players, bridge owner CSX Corp. is said to be opposed on safety grounds and federal passenger service Amtrak hasn’t taken a position.

Supporters are nevertheless pushing ahead with their advocacy, citing what they say are the recreational, economic and safety benefits of the bridge as a new pedestrian river crossing.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Martin Daley, project manager with Parks & Trails New York, the Albany-based nonprofit that’s coordinating support. “The decision is probably going to be made in Washington. The challenge is to convince someone in Washington how important this is.”

Big possibilities

Potentially, it could be a key link for numerous recreation trails.

The bridge’s western terminus is in the Corning Preserve, at the end of a bike path that can be ridden along the old Erie Canal all the way to Buffalo. At its eastern end, the city of Rensselaer has plans to develop the waterfront.

Daley said it would be a much more convenient and safer way to cross the river than the Dunn Memorial Bridge.

“The thing that makes the Livingston Avenue bridge attractive is that it’s relatively low, it comes out in a part of Albany that’s being redeveloped and it’s at the end of the Erie Canal Trailway corridor and could link to a redeveloped waterfront in Rensselaer,” he said.

Daley and others believe CSX Corp. is opposed, but the Florida-based rail company did not respond to requests for comment.

Amtrak hasn’t yet taken a position. “We are aware of the local efforts to construct a pedestrian path on a new Livingston Avenue Bridge,” spokesman Cliff Cole said in an email. “Amtrak will continue to cooperate with the New York State Department of Transportation in its study of the proposal, but does not have an official position on the matter at this time.”

DOT has also not taken an official position, though engineers there are overseeing the new bridge’s design.

The Capital District Transportation Committee, which sets priorities for federal transportation funding in the region, is in favor of including a walkway on the bridge,

“CDTC believes this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that shouldn’t be missed,” Cohoes Mayor John T. McDonald, chairman of the CDTC, wrote in a December 2010 letter to DOT.

There’s been a railroad bridge at that point since 1866. The current five-span black steel superstructure opened in 1902, and it included a pedestrian walkway. The walkway fell into disrepair, however, and was closed in the late 1980s.

Complex job

The bridge includes an unusual swing feature that allows one span to be opened when larger ships need to pass. DOT officials say the mechanism has become unreliable as the bridge has aged, leading at times to both marine and rail traffic delays. It isn’t yet known whether that will remain in the replacement bridge’s design.

Transportation officials have been concerned about the bridge’s aging for years, and have placed a 15 mph speed limit for train traffic across it. But for many years, there was never money to replace it.

That began to change when the 2009 federal economic stimulus bill included funding for high-speed rail development, including the Empire Corridor. Then the Livingston Avenue bridge replacement got funding when New York got additional rail money because the state of Florida rejected a $2 billion high-speed rail project.

Last summer, a total of $4 million — $2 million in federal money and $2 million from the state — was allocated for preliminary engineering and environmental review work. At the time, DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald called a replacement bridge “a critical link for high-speed passenger and freight rail service across New York state.”

Most decisions about the new bridge, including the prospects for a walkway, await the outcome of that study.

“There is no set schedule to replace the bridge and there can’t be until we are through this phase,” said DOT spokeswoman Carol Breen. “Similarly, we have no position on including a walkway/bikeway in any future project. We have been discussing the project with Amtrak, CSX and the Federal Railroad Administration and will take all public comments into consideration when we get to that point.”

The alternatives under consideration include rehabilitating the current bridge, replacing it on the current alignment, or building a new bridge next to the old bridge. State officials hope a design can be ready by late this year.

Despite the federal funding and state design work, CSX is expected to continue to own the span, and maintenance and operational responsibility will remain with Amtrak.

The bridge is used by about 14 Amtrak passenger trains and six freight trains a day. Most of the region’s east-west freight takes a more southerly route through the Selkirk yard south of Albany, while all passenger traffic comes across the Livingston Avenue bridge, which is immediately west of the Rensselaer station.

Daley said fencing or other measures should be sufficient to provide safe sharing of the bridge between pedestrians and trains.

“I think if they were able to design a walkway safely 100 years ago, we can do it today,” he said.

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