Cyclists are drawn to the bucolic farmland in the Hudson Valley as well as the scenic rides they can take up and over the Shawangunk Ridge towards the Mohonk Preserve, Minnewaska State Park, the Catskills and beyond. This desire has only been increased by the continued bike linkage that the Empire State Trail has helped create, allowing cyclists and pedestrians to travel free of motorized vehicles for longer stretches (with the ultimate goal being to connect Battery Park in Manhattan to the tip of Niagara Falls as a cross-state linear park).
During the pandemic, outdoor exercise saw an enormous boom, as the virus showed little to no transmission while being active in the outdoors, and bicycle sales went through the roof, with an entire generation either getting back on the bike or learning how.
Cycling, along with hiking, running and Nordic skiing, is healthy, adventurous, eco-friendly and a part of our human-propelled lifestyle that is interwoven with life in the Hudson Valley and touted to attract tourists. A monumental effort has been made by residents, backed by progressive leaders, to build more trails, connect existing trails and turn old railbeds into linear parks, giving nonmotorized means to enjoy the luscious scenery and greenery of our region.
Still, the most heavily trafficked bike routes are the ones that take people along paved surfaces to their desired destination, whether it be their ride to work, to home, to one of the area’s iconic landmarks or soaking in the scenic rural routes. Cyclists share these roads with cars, SUVs and tractor-trailers. Motor vehicles have clearly defined lanes and markings, while the cyclists and walkers/runners are left to fend for themselves, often with no shoulders, no barrier and aggressive or distracted drivers who feel some inflated sense of ownership and right to the asphalt over cyclists, despite them both having legal and equal rights to use the road.
A tragic accident
This imbalance of vehicle-centric authority on the roads is only emboldened by the fact that very little infrastructure has been put in to provide cyclists and pedestrians with some modicums of safety against their metal-encased companions. There are few bike lanes, adequate shoulders or lane markings along some of the most heavily ridden roads in the county.
This vulnerability was brought to a tragic forefront on September 11, 2016, when a young, spirited New Paltz native, Gabriela O’Shea, 25, was riding her bike west towards the mountains along Route 299, just past Butterville Road, when she was struck from behind by a Jeep. That stretch of road had and still has badly eroded shoulders, with no margin for error. O’Shea 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 did not slow down or give the bicycle adequate buffer space. O’Shea had nowhere to swerve safely.
She has no memory of her own of that collision, but the driver of the oncoming car testified that the cyclist was thrown more than 30 feet through the air. O’Shea was in a coma for a month and nearly died. Besides the lifelong physical and neurological damage she sustained, another part of this tragic accident was that it could have been avoided, as the county had already been made aware that the well-traveled cycling route was eroded, hazardous and had no shoulders.
Steve O’Shea, Gaby’s father, recalled having a meeting with then-county executive Mike Hein, Peter Kaufman (now deceased), a champion of safe bike and pedestrian access, and other local leaders, which resulted in Hein announcing that he would have shoulders paved all along the Route 299 corridor – not only to encourage people to engage in healthy, vigorous exercise, but also to help prevent what happened to Gaby O’Shea from happening again. “He said it would be done by the end of 2017,” said Steve O’Shea. He recalled the group pressing for bike lanes, but Hein saying, “That would take way too long,” and encouraging everyone to agree on a few feet of extra pavement for a shoulder.
“It’s been five years,” said Steve. “That’s a long time, and there’s certainly no bike lanes, but there’s no shoulders either.”
Hein soon left office for a state job, before which he did get the funds earmarked for the project and had the Ulster County Department of Public Works (DPW) lay shoulders from the Carmine Liberta Bridge across the flats. This took place in less than 48 hours. “But they never did the section where Gaby was hit,” her father said. “It’s hard to understand why the pavement couldn’t have continued to the most dangerous sections of the road, and why it would take this long. It’s frustrating.”
Steve O’Shea still remembers that “beautiful fall day. Gaby worked at the Parish as a waitress and was done with work and had the bike I had gotten her at the Bike Depot for her college graduation. It’s hard not to feel responsible, but she loves the outdoors and climbing, and the mountain called her that day. She jumped on her bike and went to ride to her friend’s house in Gardiner.”
The hit-and-run nearly left her for dead. She suffered traumatic, lifelong brain injuries as well as needing multiple surgeries to rebuild shattered bones and joints that are now full of hardware. Legally blind, she works tirelessly to rehabilitate her body and mind through physical and occupational therapy and is now going back to school. “She works very hard at her rehabilitation and was recently on a panel advocating for the creation of a Disability Department at SUNY New Paltz with professor April Coughlin, whom she really admires and who reached out to her and has been such a positive influence.”
Gaby is an avid gardener, student and still an outdoor enthusiast who walks between her mom and dad’s houses along the rail trail in the Village of New Paltz. She’s now 30 and there is still no shoulder on the road.
“That breaks my heart,” she said. “My accident did get a lot of attention, but it was one of many accidents along that very important road. That highway connects the Village of New Paltz to the mountains, to recreation and nature. What has to happen? More people maimed or killed to get a shoulder that only makes the road safer for cars, cyclists and pedestrians? It’s 2021!”
Gaby, an effervescent spirit, does not see her accident as the only defining reason to get shoulders along roads. “In 2018, 17 pedestrians were struck by cars and killed per day, as were two cyclists in the United States. A day! We’re so far behind the rest of the world in terms of creating and encouraging safe ways for people to bike and walk. Yes, my accident drastically impacted myself and my family, but I know so many families that have lost loved ones to unnecessary collisions with cars and bikes or pedestrians. We want people to get outside and to enjoy nature and have time to decompress and walk and run and cycle. Let’s help them do this safely.”
An ally in Pat Ryan
As temperatures warm up, cyclists tune up their bikes and oil their chains and the mountains call residents and tourists westward, the New Paltz Bicycle/Pedestrian Committee (NPBPC) continues to press the county for action. “It has been five years since former county exec Michael Hein announced with great fanfare that shoulders would be built on along Route 299 after Gaby O’Shea was nearly killed by a car that hit her where she was biking with no shoulder,” said NPBPC member Judy Mage, a lifelong activist for safe and accessible bike and pedestrian thoroughfares. “Years continue to pass, and the county says that they’re still in the phase of securing landowner approval. In the meantime, the Empire State Trail is going to bring a lot more cyclists to New Paltz, which means even more of a hazardous situation west of the Wallkill.”
Mage was one of the hundreds of community members who helped fundraise for O’Shea’s surgeries and rehabilitation, and at the same time petitioned the county and the state to get shoulders along the road. “Steve O’Shea’s life changed completely when his daughter was suddenly thrust into the ranks of the severely handicapped. His devotion to her rehabilitation has resulted in amazing progress, but she will never be the person she was, nor have the future she could have had. This could happen to anyone, to any of the sons and daughters of our town.”
Mage has found an ally in current county executive Pat Ryan. “I drive that route every day and I know that intersection well, and as a cyclist I completely understand that importance of getting those shoulders built for everyone’s safety,” said Ryan. “I am 100 percent committed to making our roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians and motorists.”
A proposed $7 million bike route improvement project is on track, and according to Ryan, has been moving forward, but “not at a pace that I find acceptable.” He explained that he and his office are trying to streamline some of the red tape to begin construction no later than 2022. Ryan explained that, although the county maintains the road and is eager to start the project, the road is owned by the state and the funds come through the Federal Highway Administration. “That’s where the higher-level delays are,” he said.
“We have 20 private property-owners along that stretch that we’ve had to reach out to, conduct surveys, deed searches, assessments done, hold public information sessions, follow all of the guidelines that the federal government has given us, which we’ve been doing all through the pandemic. We haven’t stopped. We’re at the point now where, if we can just get the landowners to answer their phones and call us back or respond to letters, that would help us speed this along. Our DPW commissioner is ready; we’ve turned our plans into the DOT [Department of Transportation]. Things are moving – just not as fast as we’d all like it to. But we’re doing everything we can to keep it front and center.”
Help from Antonio Delgado
To that end, Ryan and his office wrote to congressman Antonio Delgado trying to harness some the federal funds being directed toward infrastructure projects nationwide to make this one of his priorities. “The project was underfunded, and we want it to become a top infrastructure priority,” said the county executive. “With the upcoming infrastructure funds that are being released, members of Congress can highlight priority projects, and this is one in Ulster County that we want to see given that attention.”
In a letter that was sent to Delgado, Ryan wrote, “Route 299 is a major east-west corridor in the county and is used by cyclists as a link between the Village of New Paltz and nearby recreational areas (including Minnewaska State Park, Mohonk Preserve, River-to-Ridge Trail and the Ulster County Public Pool and Fairgrounds). The project consists of four-foot-wide shoulders (including the installation of sub-base) on both sides of Route 299 and a 1.5-inch asphalt overlay over the full width of the roadway from Route 44/55 to Libertyville Road in the towns of New Paltz and Gardiner (4.85 miles). These improvements will significantly increase the safety of motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and other users of this segment of Route 299.” He reminded Delgado that this particular section of road has been the site of numerous serious injury crashes.
Ryan and Mage also have an advocate in New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez, who, like Ryan, is an avid cyclist and has been working to help facilitate shared bike/pedestrian paths along Henry W. Dubois Drive in the town and village of New Paltz. “My hope is that, for this and every other project, we look at the way we design infrastructure to make sure nonmotorized transportation (i.e., bike/ped) is given the same priority as motorized transportation,” said Bettez.
The county executive hearkened back to a 2009 commitment by the Ulster County Legislature to establish a Pedestrian and Bicycle Policy that recognizes “complete streets,” which are “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users.” Safe streets continue to be a high priority for Ryan, who said that these types of multimodal roads and pathways “will help to increase bicycling and walking trips in Ulster County, which will not only reduce the carbon footprint in Ulster County, but will also promote increased exercise among children and adults, especially among school-aged children in Ulster County who are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.”
The plan calls for construction to begin in 2022, with completion sometime in 2023. “We need to find ways of reducing this red tape,” Ryan said. “It’s great that we have national infrastructure funding, but we’re here on the ground, we have the designs, we know what needs to get done and we want to get moving.”
The county executive said that he, along with New Paltz leaders, have recently petitioned the state to lower the speed limit along that stretch of road from 55 to 45 miles per hour. “The biggest threat on that road is the speed at which motorists are driving,” he said. “There are a lot of collisions with wildlife along that corridor, and it is especially dangerous when people who are not familiar with the area are traveling at high speeds. We need to slow the traffic down.”
Ryan said that he will continue to press for this project to move “at a quicker pace, but I know that there is no pace fast enough to heal the pain that the O’Sheas have been through. I’ll do whatever I can. If we have to write to Delgado, we’ll write to Delgado. I think the Empire State Trail is a great addition to our area, and being able to walk or bike from the Walkway Over the Hudson all the way to Metro North and through Highland and to New Paltz is wonderful. But it’s only going to attract more cyclists to that corridor. I want to see shoulders along there. They’re going to head to the mountain on bikes and by foot and car. Let’s help them get there safely.”