When Florida Governor Rick Scott rejected $2 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail earlier this year, NYSDOT Commissioner Joan McDonald was quick to the draw, helping to secure almost $900 million in funds for the Northeast region. Part of that money has been set aside for preliminary engineering to rehab or replace the Livingston Avenue Bridge, a freight and passenger rail bridge which connects Albany and Rensselaer and is currently a bottleneck in Amtrak’s passenger rail service. Now, the unanswered question for the adjacent communities is whether NYSDOT will apply its regional goals of including bicycle and pedestrian accommodations to the revamped bridge.
The 144-year-old swing bridge is owned by freight railroad CSX and is deemed as the “critical link” connecting New York City to northern and western New York, as well as Amtrak’s national rail system. It used to have pedestrian access—and at one point, tolls were actually collected from those who crossed—but conditions have deteriorated and there is now no legal access across. Community leaders in Albany and Rensselaer view bike and pedestrian access as key to their waterfront revitalization efforts, connecting trail systems and improving multi-modal access to the train station. The concept has loomed large in various plans over the last twelve years, most recently in “Albany 2030,” the city’s draft master plan released for comments last month.
According to Richard Filkins, manager for the project, NYSDOT has not decided yet if this bridge will include bike and pedestrian access. Filkins said there were few examples of bikes, pedestrians, and rail co-habiting on bridges, though he mentioned the possibility of cantilevering a structure off of the bridge to provide access. Some rail bridges that include such accommodations include the Steel Bridge in Oregon and Harpers Ferry Bridge in Virginia, both of which are mentioned in a report issued by the Federal Highway Administration in 2002 titled “Rails with Trails: Lessons Learned.” Parks and Trails NY also submitted a letter in November that has ample examples of bike-ped trails adjacent to rail, though not across bridges.
In December, Cohoes Mayor John McDonald III sent a letter to DOT emphasizing that the Capital District Transportation Committee had signed off on the project ”contingent on restoring pedestrian and bicycle accommodation across the bridge,” and called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.” However, Maurice O’Connell, Vice President of Government Affairs with CSX, told MTR that “we have real safety concerns for both the public and our crews.”
With discussions ongoing with CSX over several areas, it’s not clear whether NYSDOT will push hard for bike and pedestrian access on the bridge. In the meantime, as the bridge goes through preliminary engineering and environmental review inside NYSDOT offices, local advocates are nervous. Lorenz Worden from Albany Bicycle Coalition told MTR “there really is no other good option across the river.” Filkins anticipates an early fall informational meeting, and recommends that comments be sent to Commissioner Joan McDonald at any time. “Our goal is to come up with a solution that makes everyone happy,” he said.
Image: TSTC graphic, using images from CDTC and Google Maps.