People who live and work south of the railroad tracks in Fonda will have just one way out of their neighborhood after next year, due to a recent state Department of Transportation ruling.
DOT safety office Director Clifford Thomas handed down papers Thursday ordering the permanent closure of the village’s Center Street rail crossing and the closure of the Broadway crossing to northbound traffic.
Following the December 2014 deadline, village residents living between the tracks and the Mohawk River or employees at the municipal facilities there will have to take Park Street to Route 30A to get out of the little neighborhood.
The ruling puts to rest a long-running argument over village rail crossings. In late 2011, CSX officials asked the DOT to close the Center Street and Broadway crossings for safety reasons.
One person had died at each crossing in recent years. Fonda resident Mildred Vunk, 88, was struck and killed by an Amtrak train while walking over the Center Street crossing in May 2007, and 38-year-old Victoria Doyle of Johnstown was killed after driving into the path of a CSX freight train at the Broadway crossing in February 2005.
Currently, 75 to 100 freight trains and eight Amtrak passenger trains race through the village every day.
Village officials led by Mayor Bill Peeler fought the closures strongly. There were public hearings and the DOT received more than 100 letters and petitions in favor of keeping the crossings open to traffic.
Administrative law judge Robert Rybak had to be brought in for a measured recommendation.
Peeler wasn’t available for comment Tuesday, but over the course of the dispute, he brought up a number of reasons to leave the crossings open, with safety being chief among them.
“A threat to the life of any resident of Fonda is an emergency,” he said at a public forum on the crossings more than a year ago.
The mayor said closing the crossings might slow emergency response times, adding that 19 percent of Fonda’s residents are senior citizens and need ambulances nearby.
Then there’s the issue of flooding, and the need to evacuate residents when the Mohawk River overflows.
Originally, Rybak came down in favor of closing both crossings.
“In a perfect world, these two crossings would be closed,” he wrote in a recommendation quoted in the recent DOT ruling. “However, we don’t live in a perfect world.”
While Rybak went on to say Route 30A should provide adequate mobility, he did acknowledge a flood could knock out the road and essentially strand residents in the Park Street neighborhood.
The ruling then, is a sort of compromise.
The Center Street crossing was closed to traffic early on in the debate. Concrete barricades are still in place, but the ruling orders the crossing opened to pedestrians.
The Broadway crossing also will be left open to pedestrians, even as current two-way traffic is reduced to one southbound lane.
During any future flooding, that southbound lane could be opened temporarily to northbound vehicles, with police directing traffic.
The ruling holds CSX accountable for much of the cost of the changes — the DOT’s costs to alter the road and sidewalk and the village’s costs for changing the signs. DOT officials did not return calls for comment on how much those changes might cost.
If the changes aren’t made by the deadline, the Broadway crossing will be blocked off entirely and permanently.