We’re pleased to learn that the eastward view from the Western Gateway Bridge between Schenectady and Scotia is going to be preserved. But that view-killing solid concrete wall on the western side, the prettier side, still rankles. It should never have happened — and wouldn’t have if aesthetics and scenic vistas had been properly valued by the state Department of Transportation, or if the public had had a chance to see the design before construction began. Local officials apparently also didn’t know what the barrier would look like because, according to county Planning Commissioner Ray Gillen, they weren’t shown or told, and didn’t think to ask.
The contractor, VHB, a Massachusetts-based company with offices in Vermont and Albany, obviously knows that see-through railings are available, safe and attractive, since all the bridges shown on its website have one. The company, which prides itself on respecting natural settings and minimizing negative impacts through design, would almost surely have used such a railing if the choice had been up to it.
But DOT’s request for proposals called for solid concrete walls on both sides. The reason given by a spokesman wasn’t safety, as one might expect (in fact, railings are built to the same crash standards as walls). Amazingly, it was aesthetics: Someone at the agency actually thought a solid concrete wall would look better — if not from the roadway, then from the water or land. But that bleak mass of concrete is ugly from wherever viewed. It’s appropriate for an apartment building in Moscow during the Soviet era, not a bridge over a particularly beautiful stretch of river.
We appreciate DOT’s decision to now allow a railing on the eastern side of the bridge, even if two of its spokesmen can’t quite agree on the reason. One said it was to provide nice views for bicyclists and pedestrians from a multi-use trail on that side. But those users would be able to see easily over the wall anyway. The real, and only, reason there will be a railing on that side is that, as the other spokesman acknowledged, the public complained.
DOT deserves credit for listening and responding to those complaints. But it needs to do more. It needs to restore at least some of the view by cutting off the top of the western wall, or putting notches or other openings in it, provided that can be done without compromising the wall’s or the bridge’s structural integrity. The wall might not have to be as strong or high if there were a guardrail between the roadway and sidewalk, which seems justified for pedestrian safety anyway.
DOT also needs to mitigate the damage by doing something for the community. That could be providing public access to the Isle of the Cayugas, which lies directly under the bridge, and other Indian-named islands to the west, and helping turn them into a unique park.
Finally, it needs to make sure this doesn’t happen again by making preservation of scenic views a priority with any bridge project along coastlines and rivers.