The struggles by local leaders to solve safety problems along Route 9G were brought into stark relief again with the Jan. 31 hit-and-run deaths of two Bard students just north of the Tivoli entrance road.
For years, the intersection at West Kerley Corners Road (County Rt. 78) and Broadway has been considered dangerous, and the narrow stretch of a state road with little shoulder room has been frequently criticized.
The late-night incident, in which two first-year students were killed and another injured while walking along the southbound lane, may well be the most devastating criticism of all.
But it is not the first incident near that spot. In 2012, a one-car crash north of the intersection claimed three lives, and Sergeant Patrick Hildenbrand of the Red Hook police, who grew up in Tivoli, told the Observer there have been many accidents, and other fatalities, there.
Asked about the safety issues with the Route 9G-Tivoli intersection, Red Hook Town Supervisor Sue Crane told the Observer that two years ago the town was able to get the speed limit reduced along that stretch of the highway from 55 mph to 45 mph.
During a meeting she attended at the state Department of Transportation, with Bard officials and county officials, she recalled, all agreed that the intersection was dangerous and that the road is high risk because it lacks shoulders along many portions.
The speed limit was lowered from 55 mph to 45 mph from Red Church south to just below the Tivoli intersection. The speed limit resumes at that point, but is then lowered to 45mph from Annandale Road, the northern most entrance to Bard College, and stays that way until Kelly Road, which is south of the main Bard entrance.
Crane added that the town also tried to get pedestrian and bicycle trails added, but DOT officials put up obstacles to every trail, citing cited lack of road shoulders, lack of designated trail lane and lack of signage as some of the reasons.
“It seems to me there could be more done,” she said. “But …is it safe to have a thoroughfare like 9G with a bicycling lane over a stretch of road? I don’t know the answer to that.”
Crane did say there is a designated route for Bard students to bike into Red Hook and that the college also helps student bicyclists find the safest routes into town.
Asked about increased lighting on the road in that area and maybe even a stop light at the Tivoli intersection, she said, “I promise you there will be a hard look at what can we do together with Bard to avoid (future) situations, whatever they may be.”
Tivoli Mayor Bryan Cranna said he has tried a number of ways to get the intersection safety issues improved.
He requested a traffic light there in 2009, but he said the request was denied because the DOT convinced him that with the current road structure, a stop light there could cause more rear end collisions.
“I continued to call for more studies after some major accidents did occur at this area,” he told the Observer. “That was denied. I also asked the DOT to at least consider a flashing yellow light. That was denied.”
Cranna then met with an engineer who designed a detailed plan for a roundabout at the intersection, but that plan was also denied, he said.
While he does credit DOT with lowering the speed limit there, Cranna said what is needed is a complete change to alert drivers that there are two major communities off the busy highway.
“I look forward to working with Bard College, Dutchess County, DOT,
the Town of Red Hook and our state legislators to … design and develop a plan to make this corridor safer for everyone,” he said.
He added, however, “We must be cognizant of the fact that this tragedy was caused when someone decided to get behind the wheel of a car while allegedly intoxicated.”
The driver accused of killing the Bard students is a Red Hook woman, Carol Boeck, who was charged with felony DWI in the incident because of a prior conviction, along with vehicular manslaughter. The 2012 fatal accident also reportedly involved alcohol.
Hildenbrand said he and other police officers feel that no safety measures can prevent tragedies that involve driver intoxication.
“In the 2012 crash, the car was going at 90 mph around the curve north of the intersection,” he said. “In this case, no lights, no signs, nothing would have prevented it.”
Hildenbrand also said one problem is that many Bard students live off campus and quite a few live in houses along Route 9G. So they walk down Route 9G to reach Tivoli, he said.
“When you walk in the dark, wearing dark clothes, it’s impossible for a driver to see you,” he noted.
County legislator Micki Strawinski told the Observer that when she was a member of the Red Hook Greenway and Trails Committee, the issue of safety at the intersection came up consistently, but nothing happened due to a lack of funding.
She added that one of her goals as a legislator now is to improve safety conditions for walkers and bikers along Route 9G.
“Sadly, when you are dealing with the problems of driving while intoxicated or impaired, these kinds of tragedies are going to happen and this, too, is a subject that needs to be vigorously addressed,” she said.