Connecting up all the missing links in Ulster County’s rail trail system, eventually enabling cyclists to travel from the Poughkeepsie Metro North station all the way to the Catskills or Orange County and back again, was one of outgoing county executive Mike Hein’s proudest goals. And why not? Human-propelled tourism is a green industry that helps make the economies of our scenic, bucket-list-worthy communities thrive. Though Hein is soon to move on to a statewide post, his dream is nearly fulfilled.
There’s just one problem with this vision, however, even as it nears fruition. Rail trails and paths with limited motor vehicle access aren’t the only thoroughfares that bicycles can and do utilize. Our county is filled with stunning landscapes accessible only by road. Cyclists will be drawn to them; and by law, they have the right to use them. Trouble is, a large proportion of motorists don’t realize that they have a responsibility to share the road — and to do it without endangering the health and safety of cyclists or pedestrians.
Gabriela O’Shea of New Paltz, who is slowly healing from a devastating bike/car collision that occurred on Route 299 on September 11, 2017, exemplifies the reasons why this shortsightedness ought not to be ignored. “The public is invited to Ulster County for outdoor activities. Why is Ulster County not safe enough to do the things they’re invited to do?” asks O’Shea, pointing out the inherent hypocrisy in the county’s official positions boosting tourism based on vigorous outdoor activity like hiking and cycling.
O’Shea was struck from behind by a Jeep with aftermarket tires that stuck far out from the sides of the vehicle, on a stretch of road with a badly eroded shoulder and no margin for error, just west of Route 299’s intersection with Butterville Road. in New Paltz. According to her attorney, Joseph O’Connor, Gaby was riding right on the white line on the side of the road when she was hit; at the edge of that white line was a four-inch dropoff, clearly visible in photos from the crash site. Another car was approaching in the opposite direction; the driver of the Jeep, Amy Ashkenas, did not slow down or give the bicycle adequate buffer space. Gaby had nowhere to swerve safely. She has no memory of her own of that collision, but Jennifer Ippolito, the driver of the oncoming car, testified that the cyclist was thrown more than 30 feet through the air.
Aside from the physical and neurological damage that Gaby sustained, and the profound disruption to her life that will likely be a permanent legacy of the crash, the greatest tragedy here may be the fact that the county Highway Department knew that the section of road involved was hazardous. According to Pavement Data Reports conducted annually, the shoulder of Route 299 along that stretch — four to six feet wide when the road was built in 1949 — was down to one foot wide by 2016. “Now it’s down to zero. It’s disintegrated,” O’Connor says. He shows an Initial Project Proposal submitted to the county Highway Department ten days before Gaby was hit indicating “shoulders: absent” at that location. Calling Route 299 westward from New Paltz to the Shawangunks “the most prominent bicycle route in Ulster County,” the attorney argues, “County tourism directs people to that actual path that you know is compromised.”
O’Shea, her family, fellow cyclists and other supporters in the community have lauded the support of Town of New Paltz officials, who officially requested a reduction in the speed limit on Route 299 from 55 to 45 miles per hour. Ulster County at first agreed to support that request, but then reversed its position, and the New York State Department of Transportation ended up turning it down. To its credit, the county did widen the shoulders — but only from the Carmine Liberta Bridge as far as the Butterville crossing, which also now has a stop sign. The shoulders west of that point, all the way to the intersection with Route 44/55, are still a hazard to cyclists, and more incidents have occurred since Gaby’s terrible day. “When I met with Hein, he promised they’d be finished by the end of 2017,” recalls her father, Stephen O’Shea.
Gaby’s injuries were extensive and severe, affecting her head, neck, ankles, elbows, ribs, pelvis and vertebrae. In December she had the fourth — and what she hopes will be the last — surgery to reconstruct her right arm, which included realignment of nerves and reattachment of her triceps. While she is physically mobile, Gaby’s ability to move through a room or along a sidewalk is compromised by the loss of much of her peripheral vision due to her traumatic brain injuries. She can’t see anything below chin level, so if there’s any obstruction on the floor, she’ll trip over it.
Worst of all is her memory loss. She came out of her coma with no recollection of anything that happened prior to her head injury. “My long-term memory is 98 percent absent, including the countries I’ve traveled to. My friends created a website where they post pictures of things they’ve done with me. They seem like familiar sights, but nothing I have an attachment to. I’ve lost part of my life — the amazing things I know I’ve done.” Her short-term memory is also compromised, but her father reports that he has recently seen some improvement.
Gaby is able to ride a bicycle again, barely, and only on flat surfaces like the rail trail, due to both vision and balance issues. A former rock climber, yoga devotee and dancer with the Vanaver Caravan, “I used to be able to balance on one foot and put the other foot over my head,” she says. She had earned a BA in English from SUNY New Paltz, summa cum laude, only a few months before her collision; the bike had been a graduation present. Now she’s back to taking classes, online, as part of her neurological rehabilitation: “Buddhism and Modern Psychology,” taught by her cognitive psychologist, and “Introduction to Disability Studies” through her alma mater. She also writes in a journal each night before bed, to help herself retain short-term memories as they accumulate.
“Long-term, I’d love to be able to return to school and become a physical therapist, so I can help people the way people have helped me. My short-term goals are just to get more independence; to strengthen my arm; to better my memory.” With her parents’ help, Gaby is in the process of applying to an intensive rehabilitation program, at the Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU, that would require her to live in New York City four days a week for a six-month period. If accepted, she will start the program in March.
In the meantime, Gaby O’Shea is dividing her time between her divorced parents’ two households; trying to get a little better each day, physically and mentally; awaiting resolution of her personal damages lawsuit against Ashkenas and Ulster County; and angling for some volunteer work with the Village of New Paltz. “I hope it’ll help me feel like I’m coming back to normalcy,” she says.
She also wants to remind us all that our streets are meant to be shared, safely: “The public needs to be aware that pedestrians and cyclists are allowed to be on the road… I hope that New Paltz will continue with the actions needed to make us a town that is just as safe as it is inviting for lovers of the outdoors.”