For those of you following the action, here are the cliff’s notes of the meeting.
Supporters of the Livingston Avenue Bridge made a strong showing for the NYSDOT / FRA public heariing on the Tier I Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) public hearing for High Speed Rail. We were joined by Reclaim our Waterfront, PAUSE, NYBC, ABC, and many individuals. Together we reminded NYSDOT that consideration of the Livingston Avenue Bridge in the DEIS is a top priority for the region.
Although site-specific impacts of the selected program will be determined in Tier 2 evaluations, it is important to set the stage for the future of this critical bicycle and pedestrian connection and thus the report should acknowledge the significant local and regional support for the Livingston Avenue Bridge Walkway. The DEIS should contain general and relevant specific review of all transportation projects in the corridor, as well as a
consideration of all activities reasonably foreseeable in each of the geographic areas of the program. The DEIS document should incorporate information based on the planning documents of other federal agencies, and state and local governments, including the studies highlighted below. Furthermore, the DEIS should take into consideration that the Livingston Avenue Bridge was added to the Capital District Transportation Committee’s Transportation Improvement program in 2009 in anticipation of ARRA funding contingent on restoring pedestrian and bicycle accommodations across the bridge.
Both Albany County and the City’s Common Council passed resolutions of support of the re-establishment of the walkway and highlighted the benefits of restored access in several state and federally funded plans including the Albany 2030 Comprehensive Plan (2011), Albany Master Bike Plan (2009), and the Patroon Creek Greenway Plan (2004). Thankfully, a representative of the Albany County Legislature, Doug Bullock, was at the meeting and spoke to the county resolution and the enourmos efforts underway by the County to develop a trail network. Newly elected Albany City Common Council representative Judy Doesschate ,echoed these comments, talking about the City’s commitment to the waterfront, cycling, and walkability.
Local planning studies that acknowledge the Walkway include the City of Rensselaer Local Waterfront Revitalization Program Update (2011) and the Rensselaer County Trail from the Livingston Ave. Bridge to the Troy-Menands Bridge (2004). Perhaps a positive omen, we were informed that Amtrak has signed an easement with the City of Rensselaer to provide trail access along the Hudson Waterfront near the rail station. The Walkway has also received significant support from Rensselaer County and the City of Rensselaer – both passed resolutions of support.
The Hudson River Valley Greenway and Greenway Conservancy also passed a resolution acknowledging the role the walkway could play in connecting local, regional, and a statewide system of trails.
Both municipalities and both counties on either side of the bridge support the walkway, as does a State agency that programs and supports trail development in the Hudson Valley. This should be acknowledged in the DEIS.
Studies that identify the regional opportunities of the Walkway include the Hudson River Crossing Study (2008), Tech Valley Trails Regional Trails Plan (2007) and REVEST (Regional Enterprise for a Vital Economy and Sustainable Transportation) (1998). Despite the enormous volume of research and planning documents that NYSDOT could liberally borrow from, cherry picking relevant info, not a single detail was included in the DEIS. In fact, the Livingston Avenue Bridge was identified in 19 separate instances in the DEIS – many of which include “specific discussions” of the Bridge and its potential replacement – but a future Walkway was not mentioned a single time. For example, the description of the Bridge on page 3-24 of the DIES identifies the specific goals of the “Livingston Avenue Bridge Replacement Project” to “improve safety / reliability, travel time, remove speed / weight restrictions, increase capacity,” but does not highlight the additional transportation goal of restoring safe and convenient bicycle and pedestrian access across the bridge as identified in several local and regional transportation studies and supported by each of the municipal and county governments on each side of the bridge. Several speakers referenced the regional significance of this project – and spoke specifically to the large volume of expensive, taxpayer funded plans and studies providing evidence of the benefits and feasibility of the walkway.
LABC advocates also testified to the DEIS’s weak review of Environmental Justice issues specifically related to the Capital Region portion of the corridor. Restoration of the Walkway, and High Speed Rail in general, is a critical Title VI environmental justice issue. For example, the median household income for the census tract on the Albany side of the bridge is lower than $12,000 and nearly 58% walk or use transit to commute to work. For the city of Rensselaer (the city’s two census tracts are delineated by the rail line leading to the bridge) the percentage of households with incomes below $25,000 is higher than the New York State average and the MSA. The same rings true for the percentage of households receiving public assistance, SNAP and food stamp benefits, and families living below the poverty level. These families will see no direct benefit from High Speed Rail, but they will experience increased noise and emissions. High speed rail provides great benefits to system users, however, if the overhaul of this system provides no local benefit beyond faster commutes, the project will have a lasting impact on neighbors. How will that be mitigated? he Walkway is a start.
Finally, regardless of the scenario chosen, or the type of bridge that is built (bascule, lift, swing) there are well documented construction and management practices that can reduce and eliminate potential conflicts. In 2002, The Federal Rail Administration, at the direction of the U.S. Department of Transportation, developed a report for the purpose of examining safety, design, and liability issues associated with the development of shared use paths and other trails within or adjacent to active railroad and transit rights-of-way. This comprehensive document not only outlines the risks and benefits associated with rails with trails, it also highlights several case studies, presents best practice design guidelines, and provides sample legal agreements for trail managers and Rail Road operations. When the report was commissioned, there was an estimated 400 miles of rails with trails in the US. By 2007, Rails-to-Trails Inc. estimated the total US mileage of Rail with Trail had grown to nearly 900 miles of safe, accessible, and popular trail adjacent to, and in close proximity to operating freight, passenger, and inner-city light rail. The Federal Rail Administration literally wrote the book on rail with trail safety. The findings of FRA’s report should be included as an appendix to the Empire Corridor EIS as to document the opportunities, not just for the Livingston Avenue Bridge, but for the entire corridor, for rail and trail to safely coexist.
In summary, there hasn’t yet seemed to be any controversy about the Livingston Avenue Bridge Walkway. That’s due in part to the low cost of the facility, the enormous volume of research that documents the benefits, the Federal Rail Agency’s acknowledgement and data to support best construction and management practices of these facilities, and the overwhelming public support for the facility. It’s a given that the Walkway provides a significant regional benefit and that not providing it today would be an enormous blunder. So what’s the harm in acknowledging the need, research, benefits, environmental, and safety data?
NYSDOT assured attendees that there will be project specific meetings in the spring, in which the finer details of the bridge’s alignment and design will be discussed. Our intent at this hearing, and all along for that matter, is to ensure we have a solid foundation so that when it comes to the unveiling the walkway, it seems to be a forgone conclusion it will be on each and every alternative design presented.