DRYDEN, NY -- The Dryden Town Hall was packed for the first time in a while this past Wednesday for a Town Council meeting where members of the community gathered to share their thoughts on the proposed project to build a bridge across Route 13 to connect portions of the Dryden Rail Trail.
The pedestrian-bicycle bridge will be a 110-foot single span steel structure built on new concrete abutment with concrete wingwalls, featuring shallow foundations. Along the bridge will be a 10-foot wide stone dust trail running from Monkey Run Road to Hallwoods Road, which will be constructed on a former rail bed corridor not adjacent to the highway as well as carried over Route 13 via the bridge.
The entire project is expected to cost $2.9 million. The town has already raised roughly $2.4 million of that total through grants and is planning to commit $250,000 to $300,000 from the annual budget to the project.
Multiple residents spoke in support of the bridge project during the public comment portion of the July 15 meeting, highlighting the importance of providing a safe way for trail goers to cross Route 13.
“We all would have loved to have found a simple and cheap way to cross … Route 13, but we knew enough not to settle for a solution that didn’t meet our goals for a safe crossing for both recreational users and for commuters,” Alice Green, a member of the Dryden Rail Trail Task Force, said. “Safety concerns, ours and those of our advisors from the county and the state, really account for the reasons why we decided that the bridge is the best option.”
“I talked to a lot of bicyclists, or people who are … members of the bicycle organizations, as well as walkers, people in walking organizations, and they say there’s no doubt that people will try to go straight across [Route 13],” Judy Pierpont, another member of the task force, said. “We want this to be a transportation route, and a lot of people are in a hurry and a lot of them don’t want an extra two-thirds of a mile out of their way going down. What I’ve heard is that they’ll go straight across, there will be accidents, people will be hurt, somebody will be killed, and then we’ll be in real trouble and it will be the regret of everybody that we didn’t put a bridge in.”
Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson also offered her thoughts on the project, emphasizing the prioritization of the safety of the trail’s users.
“I can’t even think about the possibility of somebody losing their life because they try to go across this big, big highway, and it will happen,” Robertson said. “It will happen.”
The town considered several alternatives to a bridge over Route 13, including a crossing at the intersection of Routes 13 and 366, an at-grade road level crossing as well as a tunnel. All three were deemed unsafe by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and/or more expensive than the bridge option.
Another alternative, which was also ruled to be unsafe by the NYSDOT, was running the trail parallel with Route 13 down to and underneath the Fall Creek Bridge and back. This option was ultimately not chosen for multiple reasons:
The trail is not only intended for recreational use, but it is also required to meet the needs of pedestrians who will use it as an alternative way to commute. Routing the trail to the Fall Creek Bridge would add two thirds of a mile – with steeper slopes near the creek – to its overall route, which “would not serve the commuter requirement,” according to an information sheet on the rail trail project handed out to the public at the meeting.
The town fears that trail users will still choose to take the shortcut across Route 13 over this option.
The task force and the NYSDOT determined that signage and fencing would be disregarded and bypassed by trail users. (Pierpont said individuals have been cutting holes in the existing fence along that portion of the trail to take the shortcut across Route 13.)
With this option, the trail would have to run within 10 feet of Route 13. This proximity paired with the high-speed route presented safety issues.
Nonetheless, there are a faction of Dryden residents that routing the trail alongside Route 13 to Fall Creek is a more reasonable option. Bruno Schickel, who is a former member of the rail trail task force, outlined his opposition to the bridge project at Thursday's meeting.
“I am opposed to this bridge – pedestrian bridge – for the simple fact that there’s a wonderful alternative at about one percent of the cost, and I just do not understand why the town would not take that option,” Schickel said.
Shickel said he budgeted $53,000 for running the trail down along Route 13 and under the Fall Creek Bridge and another $24,000 for a seven-foot high fence that would separate the trail from the highway and hopefully prevent individuals from crossing over.
“There is no reason why anybody is going to climb over a seven-foot fence to try to save this time,” he said. “It’s not going to happen. So I would really encourage everybody to rethink this.”
Town Supervisor Jason Leifer responded to the public after the comment period, reiterating the dangers of Route 13 and the need to find the safest solution possible.
“We’re not at any point where this is a done deal yet for a bridge … but all of the intersections around 13 are a safety disaster whether you're driving or walking or biking,” Leifer said. “I can’t say how many times just driving my car home from meetings I almost get rear-ended making a turn on Ringwood Road, because people are just stupid, okay. They don’t see what’s in front of them, there’s no way for them to really get around you and they’re still driving 65 miles an hour.”
“We’re looking to do something for the public good, and we’re going to have to have a safe process so no one dies. Period.”
Schickel made it clear that neither he or anyone else present at the meeting is “suggesting an unsafe way to get around [Route] 13,” though he is struggling to comprehend why the council is so fixated on building a bridge at the location.
“You’re talking about all these other intersections that are problematic, but I don’t see anybody focusing on trying to solve those problems … why aren’t you saying, okay, let’s spend $50,000 more and make a fence that nobody can go through,” he said. “Let’s find a solution for this that, okay, maybe it costs a little bit more – maybe it’s two percent of this bridge – but it will solve the problem without question. Why are we trying desperately to spend three million dollars when the solution, the simplest solution, is standing right there in front of us?”
Another worry from the public is the possibility of the use of “eminent domain” – the right of a government or its agent to take possession of private property for public use – to obtain the remaining pieces of land needed to construct the bridge and the practicality of such a use in this particular situation. (The town decided to contract with the NYSDOT, allowing it to manage the property acquisition process of those parcels, one being 0.16 acres of private property.) According to the information packet provided to those present at the meeting, the town believes eminent domain is justifiable in this situation “because a bridge is the only viable option for completing the Dryden Rail Trail” based on safety studies conducted.
It is unknown what the next steps will be following the public’s input on the proposed project, though resident Ron Szymanski suggested tabling it until there is a sense of unity in the community on the topic.
“The beauty of this rail trail is that it has had community support because of the way it’s been approached,” Szymanski said. “It has been a buy-in by the landowners and by people that have been willing to work and invest money. And that’s the context; I think we need to keep this.”
“This right now is divisive. We don’t need this in this town,” he said. “To the extent that we’re not getting the buy-in at this one point, I think we back off. Things will come together when they come together, but let's not take something that has been so positive, so constructive, and then create an issue that doesn’t need to be created.”