- click on the image below for a larger version of a 1-page flier summarizing the Lost View & Sidewalk Safety issues at the Western Gateway Bridge, over the Mohawk River, NY Rte. 5, between Schenectady and Scotia NY.
Editor’s Note: This posting has grown quite large as I learned more and more about the Bridge, the regulations and process at NYSDOT, and the actions and non-action of our local municipal leaders and planners. At first, I focused solely on the Lost View, but as I learned more about the threat posed by the barrier-less sidewalks, I came to believe the Sidewalk Safety Issue was just as important and surely more urgent.
- share this posting with this short URL: http://tinyurl.com/WGBview
You can get a crash course on the issues raised by the $16.9 million WGB rehab project by reading the two following documents:
- My letter to Joan McDonald, Commissioner of the NYS Department of Transportation, dated Dec. 18, 2013, with two photo attachments, which sums up the main arguments for undoing the harm caused by the Project.
- My Sunday Gazette View-Points piece “Loss of scenic vistas and guardrails on Western Gateway Bridge falls on shoulders of local leaders” (Nov. 17, 2013), which argues that there are no good excuses for local leaders letting DOT take away the WGB views and guardrails.
update (Dec. 17, 2013): The snow storm last weekend uncovered another problem with the cement wall parapet: Plowed snow cannot be pushed through it as with steel railing. Instead, the snow accumulates along the parapet, and can greatly reduce the usable sidewalk path, which is a mere 5’2″ to begin with, and make the sidewalk treacherous with slush and frozen snowmelt. Click on the photo at the head of this update to see how the parapet and its adjacent sidewalk looked at 4 PM Monday, Dec. 16, more than a day after the snow stopped falling. The photo also has some commentary. And,
Things were even worse for pedestrians on the bridge on February 5 (see photo above), as there had been no plowing at all of either sidewalk at 2 PM, despite 10 to 12 inches of snow, forcing pedestrians to walk about half a mile in the slippery roadway in a strong wind, with very poor visibility.
The 5′-wide sidewalk along the cement wall was still uncleared at 3 PM the next day, when a NYS DOT crew was trying to clear a path on the approach to the sidewalk. At 7 PM that night, a snow-blower had cut out a path less than a 3-foot wide on the sidewalk along the cement parapet:
- click on the above collages to see more photos from Feb. 5-6, at the Bridge -
Original Posting (with updates, follow-ups, etc.)
- the above collage shows the lost views and some of the problems caused by the cement wall parapet; click on it or any photo in this posting, for a larger version -
. . . and put up sidewalk guardrails!”
There is a lot of misinformation about how that cement wall (parapet) that steals our views of the Mohawk River ended up on the Western Gateway Bridge (Google map). This posting attempts to set the record straight, using readily-available public records (primarily from the webpage for the NYS Department of Transportation ["DOT"] Accelerated Bridge Program, Phase 1B Zon 1 Contract). I hope you will be motivated to let your local leaders and Legislative representatives know you want your scenic treasure back, along with guardrails to protect pedestrians and bicyclists from fast-moving traffic that jumps or rolls over the curb or — more likely — that they fall into by accident or are forced into when interacting with other sidewalk users.
The cement wall built by Kubricky Construction Corp. on the west side of the Western Gateway Bridge [WGB] robs us of beautiful views of the Mohawk River. Despite excuses given now by local officials (including Scotia Mayor Kris Kastberg), the wall did not happen because the contractor has full authority to design the bridge on its own under its design-build contract. The NYS Department of Transportation [DOT] sets requirements and reviews design proposals and changes even for design-build projects. It does not hand a contractor a large check and a blank sheet of drafting paper. In fact:
- DOT Required the Cement Wall Months Before the Contract was Awarded. DOT mandated the cement wall as early as May 2012, during the bidding process, three months before Kubricky was awarded its contract. See Addendum No. 4 and Addendum No. 5 to the Project Requirements document. Our local leaders did nothing to stop the wall or even alert the public so that we could voice our views about the loss of a treasured scenic resource.
- We Gained Bike Lanes and Lost Scenic Vistas & Guardrails: The original Project Requirements announced on April 11, 2012 required a (see-through) four-rail steel railing. Our local newspaper and others immediately asked why there were no shared-use lanes and no mixed use bike-pedestrian pathway. In response, on May 11, 2012, at the same time it changed the bridge requirements to create two multi-use lanes and a wider path for pedestrians and bicyclists, DOT amended its plan to instead require a cement wall and barred the 4-steel-rail alternative; it also said that no bicycle fencing need be placed above the parapet to prevent bicyclists or pedestrians falling off the bridge. The issue of pedestrian guardrails was not mentioned in either the original or modified bridge requirement memos.
Did the community forfeit its scenic view by asking that the bridge be safer for bicyclists & pedestrians?. If that were the tradeoff, due to fiscal or engineering requirements, DOT surely discussed it with our local leaders while they were engaged in an active dialogue about including the multi-use lanes and bicycle-pedestrian pathway. In his letter to me dated October 15, 2013, Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy rejected the tradeoff explanation, saying “I believe it was simply a project decision based on the experience and preferences of the designers.”
DOT has also said the multi-use changes were not the cause, and I think we have to take the agency at its word. DOT spokesman Bryan Viggiani told a Gazette reporter in an email: “In conjunction with the change [adding the multi-use lanes and path] the decision was made to make the barrier decorative, rather than the standard four-beam steel bridge railing. Local leaders were not made aware of the change in barrier plans at the time, he said.” (“Western Gateway Bridge has roots in early 1800s“, Sunday Gazette, by Kelly De La Rocha, November 3, 2013; also see Gazette editorial, “DOT must do more about lost bridge view”, September 12, 2013.)
For most of us, it is surprising that DOT believed a “decorative cement barrier” was an aesthetic improvement over standard beam railing that allowed a beautiful view of river and forest, or that a cement parapet was a better option than merely using more attractive steel railing. Nevertheless, the fact that the switch was seen as a decorative-aesthetic bonus, rather than a cost-cutting or safety measure, indicates that an early public outcry over losing the view might very well have received a positive response from DOT. l had originally thought that the switch to the cement parapet was probably a fiscal or engineering and safety tradeoff due to the incorporation of multi-use lanes. That is apparently not the case. For example, the Bridge’s new configuration, with the wider multi-use lanes, did not require a wider deck; instead, the deck is actually four inches narrower than before the multi-use lanes were part of the design.
Because the switch was instead due to an aesthetic judgment that clashes greatly with the feelings of the community, I also believe continued advocacy to salvage the beautiful western view may be effective, especially when coupled with the need to better protect sidewalk users. Dollars and delay seem a comparatively small price compared to restoring a rare scenic view from an urban bridge and traditional sidewalk safety measures.
- Local Leaders Should Have Known and Acted. The documents requiring the cement wall, plus a sample photo of a cement wall, were immediately posted at the DOT site in mid-May 2012. County, City and Town officials should have been monitoring this important, $18.1 million project for such changes. Whether or not there were formal communications between DOT and local jurisdictions, our local leaders were sufficiently “in the loop” to know in April 2012 that the original configuration had no new multi-use lanes, and then, in Mid-May 2012, to tout their role in convincing DOT to add the requested lanes and bike path.
Local officials tell us now that DOT never directly told them about the change and they never thought to ask about railings and parapet barriers. But, such monitoring should have been an obvious obligation for “planners” and representatives of local residents.
Indeed, DOT advises at its Accelerated Bridge Program [ABP] information portal: “Visitors are urged to check the website regularly, since changes are possible.” The agency makes that task quick and easy to accomplish through its ABP webpages. Their informative website was surely implemented so that “stakeholders” in all sectors could keep informed about the process and progress of a particular project.
An Important and Obvious Lesson: Design-build transportation projects call for more, not less, monitoring against safety, aesthetic and environmental threats. The lack of public participation in the process is not an excuse for local officials to do nothing; it should instead make local officials, especially planning officers, more alert to changes in order to protect the public interest. That is especially true because DOT has customarily shown a willingness to listen and respond in positive ways to community concerns and preferences.
The public deserves to know who knew about the substitution of a cement wall, and also about the decision to eliminate sidewalk guardrail protection, but decided they were acceptable and/or not something they need not tell the public. If somehow our planners and leaders were oblivious to the loss of vistas and guardrails, we need to know who failed to find out that crucial information and why.
- The View Eastward is Saved: The DOT decisions about the eastern edge of the Bridge are instructive. As with the western side of the WGB, DOT first required a four-rail steel railing but then changed to a cement parapet in May 2012. However, on September 8, 2013, within a few days of a public outcry and Gazette editorial about the cement wall and loss of scenic views, DOT announced that the eastern view will be preserved by installing a steel railing rather than the cement wall; the cement wall would, nonetheless, remain on the west side of the bridge. (see Daily Gazette, “View from Western Gateway Bridge partly preserved”, Sept. 9, 2013).
The speed of this concession clearly shows that DOT has no concerns that providing a scenic view is somehow a safety hazard, which is a specious argument being made now by some local officials and apologists. In addition, DOT’s claim that the see-through railing is being provided on that side to give a better view to bicyclists and pedestrians makes no sense: bicyclists and pedestrians (all except the tiniest) can readily see over the cement wall; it is drivers and passengers in conventional vehicles who cannot. Clearly, the community’s complaints led DOT to salvage the eastern views of the Mohawk. (See Gazette editorial, “DOT must do more about lost bridge view”, September 12, 2013) Such responsiveness is admirable and underscores the need for earlier and continuous community input, through public comment periods or the vigilance of local officials.
- (Dec. 13, 2013) No Reason for the Redesign to Leave Out the Guardrails: The lane from Schenectady to Scotia is still being constructed going well into December 2013. When the plans for WGB were redesigned in September to include the steel railing that would preserve the eastern view, it should have been obvious and easy to also include a separator guardrail between the sidewalk and the roadway. Many members of the public asked for this safety measure, and our local leaders should have been making the argument that without guardrails those using the sidewalk would be in more danger than with the pre-rehab configuration of the Bridge. Unfortunately, DOT seems to be arguing that the old guardrails were there to protect vehicles, by reducing the number or severity of collisions with the outer railing. The protection of pedestrians and bicyclists was an unintended benefit of the guardrails, is their apparent argument, so that losing that protection is not an important design element for the project. DOT made that argument earlier this year about a bridge in Troy. See the Times Union Advocate column for June 6, 2013.
update (Oct. 15, 2013): Click this link to see Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy’s response to my email letter summarizing the major points in this webposting about the Bridge, and
. . . click here for my reply to the Mayor’s Letter . .
Among other points, I reject the Mayor’s statements that 1) local officials did not have a chance to comment until construction began (which was Oct. 2012); and 2) cement parapets are now the preferred kind of bridge railing for safety and maintenance reasons.
- Take Pittsfield’s Example. In 1996, Mass. DOT built a retaining wall as long as the WGB wall that blocked the view of Pontoosuc Lake. Citizens, the Pittsfield City Council, and other leaders demanded the State tear it down and replace it with a structure that would save the view, and they succeeded. (See, e.g., Boston Globe)
WE MUST ACT NOW. With the bridge scheduled to be completed by December 31, we must let our local and County leaders and our Legislative representatives, as well as DOT, know that we want our scenic views back. [Below is a more comprehensive description of what I have learned about the WGB rehabilitation project, with quotes from relevant documents.]
- share this posting with this URL: http://tinyurl.com/WGBview
Some relevant email addresses:
Farley@nysenate.gov; firstname.lastname@example.org; SantabarbaraA@assembly.state.ny.us; SteckP@assembly.state.ny.us, email@example.com;
Manager@schenectadycounty.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; RGillen@schenectadymetroplex.org; KJohn113@aol.com [Karen Johnson County Legislator]; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org [Peggy King]; email@example.com
Also: Sam Zhou, P.E., Director, Region 1, NYS DOT; 50 Wolf Road, Rm 1s50; Albany, NY 12232; phone: (518) 457-3522; director’s secretary: firstname.lastname@example.org
follow-up re Director Zhou (Nov. 20, 2013): DOT Region 1 Director Zhou has not yet bothered to respond to my letter sent to him in hard-copy and by email on October 21, 2013 (more than 4 weeks ago), asking that the scenic view and guardrails be restored. See D. Giacalone Letter to S. Zhou).
(Dec. 13, 2013): Click to read Director Zhou’s reply, dated Dec. 6., 2013, Mr. Zhou makes the outlandish assertion the having a six-inch-high curb on the Bridge to stop vehicles from coming onto the sidewalk, “is no different than a curb along a street, which also functions without fencing between the sidewalk and the roadway.” He did not address the problem of pedestrian or bicyclists falling onto the roadway. It seems rather obvious, but because others have made similar arguments, I will point out that pedestrians on a sidewalk along a street are far safer than on WGB, because:
- traffic on the bridge is going much faster than on urban streets, where the speed limit is lower and vehicles need to be prepared to stop at any time;
- there is often a protective row of parked vehicles or a lane for parking on urban streets, as well as grass, trees, benches, or other obstructions between the sidewalk and the roadway; and,
- pedestrians usually have a place to step away from the road when on a street sidewalk.
- pedestrians on WGB are more likely to need to avoid speeding bicycles than on city sidewalks.
- distant western view from Western Gateway Bridge -
THE SIDEWALK SAFETY ISSUE
SIDEWALK SAFETY JEOPARDIZED: The WGB rehab project has no guardrails or shoulders between the sidewalks and the travel lanes, putting bicyclists and pedestrians at risk of falling into high-speed traffic. Click the collage above for photos and discussion of this important issue (or click here).
follow-up (Dec. 13, 2013): I discovered yesterday that the Design Criteria for the WGB Rehab Project includes giving the Bridge a “Design Speed” of 47 mph (its posted speed is 40 mph). The national consensus is that any design speed over 45 mph constitutes a “high speed” bridge, warranting extra protection for pedestrians and bicyclists. For example, whereas a barrier curb may suffice for low speed applications, Federal Highway Administration policy is that “A bridge with a design speed above 45 mph is considered a high-speed facility, and it must have a separator railing if pedestrians use it.” FHA has also stated that “Sidewalks on bridges should be placed to eliminate the possibility of falling into the roadway or over the bridge itself.”
Scenic View as Traffic Hazard?: Some observers have stated that drivers should watch the road, not the scenery, so we should not complain about the cement wall. See-through railing is everywhere on bridges, especially the most famous bridges and those with a beautiful view. Many states (e.g., Texas and California) have specific policies or laws in place encouraging the preservation or enhancement of scenic views from their bridges. I’ve found no information showing that a scenic view is a driving hazard. And, of course, “passenger cars” have passengers who are not driving and should be allowed to fully enjoy the vistas.
No one is encouraging long, languid gazing by drivers along the Mohawk. Whether on a bridge or a road, responsible drivers shift their focus frequently, depending upon traffic conditions, whether surrounded by scenic beauty or urban blight, or confronted by a roadside accident. We do not need to undo decades of Highway Beautification efforts or to shield drivers from attractive streetscapes, in order to increase traffic safety.
Some have suggested to me, in fact, that the heavy gray cement wall creates a tunnel-like effect that causes anxiety for many drivers, and makes others drowsy.
On the Impact of Losing a Scenic View. It should be obvious that the obstruction of a spectacular river view is a significant loss to a community. Indeed, several states, including Texas and California, require that all bridge projects preserve or improve scenic views.
I cannot say with certainty whether or not State or Federal environmental review laws should have applied to this project, once it went beyond simple rehab and replacement and added a design element that eliminated an important scenic view. Nonetheless, a NYS Department of Environmental Conservation SEAF (Short Environmental Assessment Form – SEQRA) Workbook is instructive on the value of scenic vistas. It tells officials evaluating the existence or significance of a negative impact to ask whether the project will “block important scenic views”. And, the Workbook lists as an example of a project having “irreversible impacts” one that involves “Construction of a structure that permanently alters a scenic view in a negative way.”
The next important question in a traditional environmental impact review is whether the negative impact can be mitigated. Here, where the initial plan totally avoided the problem, it is clear that the negative impact could have been and still can be mitigated. Removing the cement railing and replacing it with see-through railing is a readily available alternative.
One lesson learned from the WGB project: Higher sensitivity to the importance of scenic views is clearly called for on behalf of State highway, bridge and transportation officials, and our local planners, who often seem oblivious to aesthetic concerns. The response of our citizenry to the loss of the Mohawk River view shows the high value we place on such opportunities to enjoy natural beauty, which are all too rare in our urban lives.
. . On August 31, 2013, a Schenectady Gazette editorial asked “Who killed the view from Western Gateway Bridge?” Our state DOT may have placed the design time-bomb that killed our view and dismantled the guardrails, but DOT put its plan in plain sight, where it could and should have been discovered and removed. That means, in my opinion, that our local leaders are at least guilty of “negligent homicide” of the view for failing to defuse that bomb.
Follow-up (Nov. 17, 2013): See the Viewpoint OpEd piece in the Sunday Gazette today, titled “Loss of scenic vistas and guardrails on Western Gateway Bridge falls on shoulders of local leaders” by this weblog’s editor, David Giacalone. (subscription required; but, click here for a pdf version of the OpEd article, with an illustration by Jeanne A. Benas.)
. Below is a more detailed summary of what I have learned from the excerpted and linked documents at the NYS DOT Accelerated Bridge Program Phase 1B Zone 1 Contract webpage (emphases added): 1. According to the DOT Project Requirements Document (April 11, 2012), the Western Gateway Bridge project required the contractor to: “Remove existing inner bridge rail and outer pedestrian fencing. At each fascia, new four-rail steel bridge rail with sidewalk and pedestrian fencing shall be provided, with transition guide-rails updated to current standards.
Note: Of the 13 bridge projects approved in the package for this region that included WGB, only two called for concrete barriers, and they are two spans of the same bridge that go over I-81. Accelerated Bridge Program Phase 1B Zone 1. Even the bridges in Kubricky’s contract that go over Rt. 7 were required to have steel railings.
2. Exactly a month later, on May 11, 2012, DOT Addendum No. 4 presented revised Project Requirements for WGB, stating: “The Design-builder has the option of designing an alternate rail section to the one indicated in the posted drawings with recessed panels (no more than ¾” deep) or form liners.”
Note: The mention of recessed panels means DOT had cement walls in mind. (As noted above, I had originally assumed the Contractor asked for permission to make this change, but comments from DOT suggest that project leaders believed “decorative” cement panels are more aesthetically pleasing than the traditional railings.) Addendum No. 4 was two pages long, with no small type, and readily available to local officials. In addition, on May 16, 2012, DOT posted a sample photo on the project webpage to show the kind of acceptable recessed panels on a cement wall
3. DOT’s Region 1 staff then made the switch to a cement parapet mandatory rather than an option, in its brief Addendum No. 5 to the Project Requirements, dated May 15, 2012, which stated:
B. DB Contract Documents – Part 3 – Project Requirements
Section 4.2.3 BIN 4002590 Route 5 over Erie Canal (Western Gateway Bridge)
Required Bridge Section
The section as indicated in Addendum 4 is deleted and replaced by the following:
The required bridge section shall be 68’-6” feet fascia to fascia, 6” wider than the existing width. The bridge section (looking towards Schenectady) shall consist of a 14” width for placement of the parapet, a 10’-2” sidewalk, a 5” granite curb, a 14’-0” shared use lane, two 11-0” travel lanes, a 14’-0” shared use lane, a 5” granite curb, a 5’-2” sidewalk and a 14” width for placement of the parapet.
Recessed panels shall be used on both faces of the parapet. A photograph of a sample detail is posted on the project website for reference. Vertical pickets shall not be used. This photograph and the NCHRP barrier aesthetics report (also posted on the project website) shall be used as a guide in designing the proposed parapet.
4. In addition, on May 17, 2012, DOT posted Questions, Answers and Clarifications 214 to 222 for those who were bidding on the project (dated May 15, 2012) which states:
Question # 214: – Bin 400259 [Western Gateway Bridge]
1. Is Steel Bridge Railing (Four Rail) with Pedestrian Fencing an allowable alternate for Route 5 over Erie Canal?
Answer: No it is not.
Note: The 4-rail railing with Pedestrian Fencing went from being the required railing on April 11 to being prohibited on May 15, 2012. This was 3 months before the contract was awarded to Kubricky.
2. If the four-rail in not allowable, Is bicycle railing required on top of the proposed concrete barrier?
Answer: No it is not.
Note: Pedestrian and bicycle safety requirements are also thrown overboard, making the new configuration noticeably less safe without the removed fences and guardrails.
5. Liquidated Damages: The Project Requirements document gives the Liquidated Damages that the contractor must pay for every day it is late. All the other projects are either $1,000 or $1,500 per day. The WGB damages are $4,000 a day. Deadlines: According to the document the projects: “shall be completed and open to traffic prior to November 30, 2013. All work on the design and on the construction shall be completed prior to December 31, 2013.“
6. On September 8, 2013, within a few days of a public outcry and Gazette editorial about the cement wall and loss of scenic views, DOT announced that the eastern view will be preserved by installing a steel railing rather than the cement wall, but the cement wall will remain on the west side of the bridge. (see Daily Gazette, “View from Western Gateway Bridge partly preserved”, Sept. 9, 2013).
Note: The speed of this concession clearly shows that DOT has no concerns that providing a scenic view is somehow a safety hazard, which is a specious argument being made now by some local officials. (I’ve found no study suggesting scenic bridge views increase the risk of accidents, and every famous bridge on the planet that I am aware of has see-through railings.)
In addition, DOT’s claim that the see-through railing is being provided on that side to give a nice view to bicyclists and pedestrians makes no sense: bicyclists and pedestrians (all except the tiniest) can readily see over the cement wall; it is drivers and passengers in conventional vehicles who cannot. Clearly, the community’s complaints led DOT to salvage the eastern views of the Mohawk. (See Gazette editorial, “DOT must do more about lost bridge view”, September 12, 2013) Such responsiveness is admirable and underscores the need for earlier community input, through public comment periods or the vigilance of local officials.