The intersection of Bruynswick Road (County Route 7) and Route 44/55 in Gardiner, also known as Benton Corners, has two major claims to fame. The first is that it has been the site of a much-loved family-style Italian restaurant, Lombardi’s, since 1973. The second, not-so-happy distinction is that it’s the most dangerous two-lane rural road junction in all of Ulster County. A countywide Road Safety Analysis study just made that unenviable status official in April, and the Ulster County Transportation Council (UCTC) recommended the installation of a four-way traffic light as the most cost-effective remedy.
But corrective action will come too late to save the life of George Airday, 75, a local resident who was a member of the Gardiner Fire Department. On Sunday afternoon, June 20, traveling north on Bruynswick Road, which has a 45 miles per hour speed limit, Airday’s motorcycle was broadsided by a passenger car heading east on 44/55, where the speed limit is 55. But motorists heading downhill from the Gunks often exceed that limit, and visibility is limited because the road curves at that point. There are no stop signs or warning signals on 44/55.
Airday was pronounced dead at the scene. The car careened into a utility pole; its driver and passenger were transported to St. Luke’s Hospital in Newburgh. According to a bulletin issued by the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office, “At this time there appears to be no criminality involved with this accident and speed is not a factor. The investigation remains open and ongoing.”
Just the previous week, in his capacity as chair of the UCTC, county executive Pat Ryan had sent an e-mail to Lance MacMillan, regional director for the New York State Department of Transportation. He informed MacMillan that the traffic study had identified Benton Corners as the highest-priority intersection in the county for safety improvements and urged the DOT to take prompt action, noting that “signalization appears to be the best solution.”
Also not long before this latest fatal crash, Gardiner town supervisor Marybeth Majestic held a meeting with Gardiner Fire Department staff to seek suggestions for improvements to the town’s Comprehensive Plan, which is currently in the process of being updated. Majestic reported that the very first question addressed to her was how long it was going to take before the DOT did something about this extremely hazardous intersection. She told them that she was already in the process of trying to get state officials to meet with her about it.
Airday’s death was hardly the first to occur at the corner of Bruynswick and 44/55. In April 2017, an off-duty Walden Police officer, Dustin James, perished at the same location, also while riding a motorcycle. Of the 25 crashes that occurred at Benton Corners during the period studied by UCTC, 20 were right-angle two-vehicle collisions.
Many residents of Gardiner and the surrounding area have had accidents or near-misses at the intersection, according to comments left on a Change.org petition that was initiated by Robert Davis in the wake of Airday’s death. Noting that Lance MacMillan is the official with the authority to approve a traffic signal on a state road such as 44/55, the petition demands that the DOT “install a fully activated traffic light or at minimum a four-way stop sign in order to minimize the risk of future incidents at this intersection and improve traffic flow/right-of-way conflicts.”
As of presstime, 1,272 people, mostly local, had signed the petition, which is viewable at www.change.org/gardinertraffic. Several shared hair-raising accounts of their own perilous experiences at Benton Corners. “This intersection has been dangerous since I was a child! I’ve witnessed many accidents here through the years,” wrote Christine Martucci. “It’s scary and I fear for my kids every time they go through that intersection due to the blind spot coming from Minnewaska State Park.” Edward Irving commented, “I travel through that intersection weekly and have narrowly missed getting T-boned on several occasions.” “Many accidents have happened there, some fatal. I personally had my car totaled by a driver who ran through the stop sign. Luckily, everyone was okay,” wrote Michael Albright.
On his Facebook page, the county executive added his voice to those of the neighbors outraged over the lack of action after many years of pleas by local officials to the state. “Town supervisor Marybeth Majestic, our local first responders and my office all agree that making this intersection safer should be a priority for NYS DOT,” Ryan wrote. “Enough is enough; we will again request that the DOT act immediately quickly to remedy this situation.”