In the wake of Gabriela O’Shea being struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding her bicycle on Route 299, New Paltz-area cyclists are pushing for improvements to protect themselves, including buffered bicycle lanes and stiffer penalties written into share-the-road laws. Local officials support those ideas in principle.
Bicyclist and pedestrian safety advocates have been marshaling their forces since a car driven by Amy Ashkenas struck O’Shea from behind on September 11. Last Tuesday, more than a dozen bicyclists gathered at the intersection of Butterville Road and Route 299, where the crash occurred, to ride to Ashkenas’ arraignment.
Riding on that road is more dangerous than is apparent from inside of a car. “They don’t pave the shoulder,” said Patrick Sheeley, pointing to the road edge nearest to him. “There can be a six-inch dropoff” along that edge, he said, leaving little space for the bicyclist.
Wider shoulders along that county road have been promised time and again for over the past decade, including when Ulster County executive Michael Hein said last spring that six-foot shoulders would be added from the bridge over the Wallkill River in New Paltz to Route 44/55 by the Mountain Brauhaus. That work has begun, but the shoulders are only going to be four feet wide, maybe only three in some places. It’s a start, but nearly 2000 people have signed an online petition calling for a buffered bike lane.
Peter Kaufman, chairman of the New Paltz Bicycle Pedestrian Committee, met with Hein about that issue. “I really believe that Hein would love to have bicycle lanes and-or wide shoulders all over Ulster County,” Kaufman reported to his committee. “And I believe that he is working toward that end [at least in terms of shoulders].”
Going the extra foot
There’s a shortage of money, and numerous rights-of-way that must be secured to widen shoulders to that extent, especially west of Butterville. As for the width, “They seem committed to four feet, and I expressed how important an extra foot is, but there may be sections that only allow for three-foot shoulders.”
Though very pleased that something is being done, Kaufman believes that it’s the public interest spurring that work at this time. “I also heard from an unnamed but reliable source that the county was going to delay this shoulder work until next year,” he further wrote in his report. “I bring this up because I think it’s important to recognize that the community’s response around Gaby’s crash played an undeniable role in this work beginning done immediately, despite the county’s plan.”
Confirming Kaufman’s source, New Paltz town supervisor Neil Bettez told the town board on September 22 that the shoulder work would be delayed. But then the work began four days later. Ulster County planning director Dennis Doyle, whom Bettez cited as his source, later told New Paltz Times he didn’t say the project was to be delayed. He said it was proceeding.
New Paltz mayor Tim Rogers was asked by a reporter for the Maroon, the local high-school paper, about bicycle safety. The mayor rides virtually everywhere he goes on official or on personal business. In addition to recounting progress on improved shoulders, Rogers pointed to the future River-to-Ridge trail as a safer alternative to riding along the roads.
That trail, approved by the town planning board in August, is expected to open some time in 2017. It will be a crushed-stone path that winds through the farmland north of Route 299.
“Once completed, we anticipate slow to moderate bike speeds,” said Eileen Larrabee, communications director for the Open Space Institute, which is backing the trail. “The trail has been designed to be a meandering route for walkers, hikers, runners, bikers and horseback riders to take advantage of natural beauty and views.”
Crushed-stone path not for everyone
According to Kaufman, that route probably won’t be the best option for every cyclist. “Recreational cyclists may be okay with it as I sometimes see people with road bikes on the rail trail. But for the more serious rider and fitness enthusiast, they will stay on the road,” he predicted.
Michael Reade, president of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association, said that lower speeds are the norm on the rail trail. “In the last three years I have had only a single complaint about excessive speed by a bicyclist,” Reade said. “Most trail users have larger-tired mountain bikes or hybrids which are by nature much slower than thin-tired road bikes. I have a speedometer on my bikes, and when I’m in a hurry, I’m at a brisk 12 to 13 miles per hour.”
Kaufman pointed out that there are more than 450 miles of roads in Ulster County. “That’s a lot of competition for very scarce resources,” he said. “There is also an overabundance of immediate needs due to crumbling infrastructure.”
Reade all but scoffed at that. “Most of the road building and maintenance money comes from general revenue and not from user fees and tolls,” he said. “Everyone pays for the roads. It’s just that cars are more equal than bikes when it comes having the use of the roads.”
Even if buffered lanes seem impossible, Kaufman is urging others to continue to advocate for improving bicycle and pedestrian safety along local roads by acting as the proverbial squeaky wheels. “We need to keep squeaking, and loudly.”
Part of that squeaking came in as the riders made their way to court, where they learned that Amy Ashkenas has been charged with leaving the scene of an accident, and released on her own recognizance because she consented to a search of her person, her phone and her vehicle. Kaufman said he’d hoped for a larger turnout for that ride, but perhaps not many bicyclists felt safe riding over the flats on Route 299.