Orangetown Stuck With Maintenance
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
New York State will construct a 120-foot-long bridge to carry the expanding Joseph B. Clarke Rail-Trail over the West Shore Railroad tracks in Blauvelt, but Orangetown will have to own and maintain the structure, the surprised Town Board was informed Tuesday evening.
The rail-trail was built by Orangetown nearly 25 years ago by then Parks Superintendent Joseph Clarke. At the time, it was constructed on segments of abandoned Erie Railroad rights-of-way which the town had obtained free of charge from the state and federal governments after the Erie dissolved.
The trail began on the north side of Oak Tree Road in Tappan, opposite Sullivan’s Tavern and a few hundred feet north of the New Jersey border at Old Tappan. It initially ran north to downtown Sparkill, with a spur branching off to downtown Piermont.
Under subsequent Park Superintendent Richard Rose, the trail was also expanded westward to Route 303 in Orangeburg, where it terminated until 2004 when the New York State Department of Transportation agreed to fund construction of a bridge to carry it over the four-lane state highway, where it now terminates at Old Greenbush Road, adjacent to the Orangeburg Library.
North to Blauvelt
Now Orangetown, under current Park Superintendent Aric Gordon, is extending the trail once again. This time it will run northward, paralleling the West Shore Railroad between Route 303 and Western Highway. It will terminate at Western Highway in front of the Blauvelt Public Library.
To reach that temporary destination, however, the trail will have to cross over the busy West Shore line, which supports as many as 20 or 30 long freight trains daily.
Because of the speed, length, frequency and cargo volatility of those mile-long trains, a grade-level crossing has been deemed too dangerous, meaning a substantial bridge will have to be constructed instead to carry walkers and bikers safely over the tracks.
Orangetown was able to secure a grant from the state DOT, through which the state agency would construct the bridge at its own expense, at an estimated cost of about $600,000.
The town quickly accepted the offer and signed a contract with DOT, which even included a provision that the state agency would retain title to the bridge forever, and would perform any and all necessary maintenance and repair, as it also does on the Route 303 bridge.
Construction was to have begun this spring and the extension open for public use by fall.
The town was recently notified by the DOT that it discovered a fatal mistake in its planning, however, and would now have to renegotiate its contract with Orangetown.
The DOT can build bridges anywhere it wants, the agency said, but it can only own and maintain them if they cross a state highway, such as what was done to build the Route 303 overpass.
The state has no financial, operational or ownership interest in the West Shore Railroad, however, meaning that while DOT can build the bridge; it can’t own or maintain it.
Instead, the agency will go ahead and build the bridge as promised, but only if Orangetown agrees to alter the original agreement and take title to the structure once it is completed, and agree to its permanent maintenance.
Confused council members Tuesday questioned town officials on the implications of these requested changes by DOT, and what effect they would have on Orangetown and its taxpayers.
Town Engineer Joseph Moran was asked by Councilman Thomas Diviny what would happen if the Town Board voted not to agree to the contract changes. It’s simple, Moran promptly replied. “Then the state won’t build the bridge if we don’t agree to own and maintain it. They’ve told us that repeatedly.”
Moran, Gordon and Highway Superintendent James Dean told the council that there was little risk to Orangetown in agreeing to the change, since to the best of their knowledge the state has never had to spend a penny on repairs or maintenance to the Route 303 bridge in its 10 years of existence.
The contract calls for construction by the DOT to meet a minimum 50-year lifespan, they added, and after examining the agency’s plans, they believe the poured concrete bridge will definitely meet that criteria and not become a maintenance or financial burden to Orangetown.
Supervisor Andrew Stewart said he looked at the plans, and the new bridge “looks exactly like the Route 303 bridge, only longer”.
Conjuring their recollections of the 303 bridge, council members expressed surprise at the new bridge’s length, and queried town officials about why it needed to be so long.
The new bridge will cross the West Shore at a very acute angle, the three department leaders explained, and because it must go so high to span the trains in a low-lying area, it will require long approaches. It will be nearly twice the length of the 303 bridge, they said, but will not be nearly as visible because it will be located in a wooded area just south of Mountain view Road, near the Dominican College campus.
Councilman Thomas Morr said he doesn’t trust New York State or its DOT, and wants to see every aspect of the bridge project presented to the town in writing before he agrees to any changes.
Morr also chastised town officials for basing their recommendations to approve the changes on figures and data given to them by DOT. Cost and maintenance figures, 303 bridge figures and everything else they presented Tuesday evening were all based on data they were given by DOT, Morr fumed, likening it to asking a fox the best way to catch chickens it is supposedly guarding.
“Maintenance looks cheap and easy,” Morr complained, “but I want to see facts and figures and proof that it will be so, and not based on material you got from DOT.”
Moran tried to assure worried councilmen the maintenance should not become a burden to Orangetown. As an example, he said the town would not use road salt on the structure in the winter. Because such salt helps deteriorate roads and bridges, Moran said the town instead would plow or shovel the snow to keep the trail open year-round.
The state will use structural steel to build the bridge frame, Moran added, and will cover that with monolithic poured-in-place concrete, with no surface joints. Because of that, no water can get beneath the surface, and it should last “indefinitely,” the engineer surmised.
All three men also repeated that to the best of their knowledge, there had never been any damage, or the need for any repairs in the 10 years the 303 bridge has been open and operational. They agreed that the bridge should be essentially maintenance free for its 50-year anticipated lifespan, and after that, it will be someone else’s problem to worry about.
Barring any unforeseen developments, the council is expected to vote on amending its contract with the DOT at their business meetingTuesday evening, accepting ownership and maintenance responsibilities for the new structure once the DOT builds it.
The Joseph Clarke rail-trail is already the longest such trail in Rockland County, with Orangetown having taken the lead in the conversion of abandoned railroad rights-of-way into trails decades ago, before it became popular.
The Clarke trail now intersects with other trails, such as the Esposito Trail to Nyack, and is eventually supposed to be connected to a long-planed trail running the length of the Palisades Interstate Parkway, from Fort Lee to Bear Mountain. Near Anthony Wayne Recreation Area, the Appalachian Trail crosses Rockland County on its way from Maine to the deep south.
Much shorter trails exist in Clarkstown, Ramapo, Haverstraw and Stony Point, but there is no overall plan to connect such trails into a network of hiking and biking paths.
Even Orangetown has met opposition to trail expansion at times.
Residents in a new development in Sparkill objected strenuously to development of the Clarke trail near their neighborhood a decade ago.
And Blauvelt residents have remained steadfast in their opposition to any further extension of the Clarke trail north or west of Western Highway in their hamlet.
A natural extension would carry the trail from the library over the roadway and through Lions Park, and then following the long-abandoned Erie Mainline route to Town Line Road and into Nanuet in neighboring Clarkstown.
Area residents along that route have long complained they don’t want “unknown elements” walking a trail through their backyards, endangering their properties and their families from robberies, attacks and other offenses they claim are common along trails in both populated and rural areas.