Save the Pine Bush, You can fight City Hall and win!

The Thruway Authority
Comes Across Royally

by John Wolcott

The Thruway Authority has just completed a hikers' underpass under the new bridge that carries Route 155 over the Thruway. This was done in response to a proposal presented to the Thruway Authority by Save the Pine Bush and the Sierra Club-Hudson Mohawk Group in May 1999. This hikers' underpass reconnects two unpaved surviving portions of the colonial Kings Road, the road opened for wagons about 1663 in order to settle Schenectady and one of the most historic roads in America. When the Thruway was constructed in 1952 it split up the old road.

In 1951, before construction began, the Thruway Authority was made aware of its major predecessor by arranging for a walking tour for Thruway officials conducted by Schenectady City Historian William Efner and GE scientist, conservationist and historian Vince Schaefer. The tour was organized by Times Union writer Tip Roseberry who had been writing articles about the Pine Bush and Kings Road. But the Thruway Authority failed to avoid the old road.

The Thruway Authority didn't get involved with its historic predecessor again until 1993 when Save the Pine Bush cosponsored the first ever National Trails Day hike in Albany to bring attention to the historic significance of the Kings Road and to the ecological importance of its unique surroundings. Sponsors of the hike asked for permission to stage the hike under the old Route 155 bridge that passes over the Thruway in order to temporarily reconnect the two stretches of the Kings Highway separated by the Thruway in 1952. To our delight Thruway Authority P.R. Chief Ginny Blumstein responded favorably and directed Safety Engineer Tim Gilbert and his staff to go over what was needed. Next we secured the "Beverwyck Brigade" and "The Fort Orange Garrison" re-enactment group, whose members appeared dressed as Dutch and Indian traders and staged something like an historic pageant in addition to the hike along Kings Road and under the overpass. On this occasion the possibility of a permanent hikers' underpass was discussed with Thruway Engineer Tim Gilbert who suggested it might be done in the future upon construction of a new Route 155 bridge over the Thruway.

It turned out plans to build a new bridge appeared earlier than anticipated when the top of a truck accidentally hit the bottom of the bridge. Construction was already underway on the new bridge by May 5th of this year when we contacted the Thruway Authority to alter the plan to safely accommodate hikers. Ginny Blumstein referred us to Lee Mayness of Planning and Programming. Mr. Mayness talked to various people in the Authority and a meeting was arranged for May 19th between representatives of Save the Pine Bush and the Sierra Club and bridge engineers Dick Brady from Fraser Associates, consultants to the project and Thruway Authority engineer Kevin Mainello.

A hikers' underpass would reconnect two stretches of Kings Road and also reconnect large sections of the Pine Bush otherwise separated by major roads. The engineers were attentive and although there were some problems because construction was already underway on the bridge, they were by no means negative. They agreed with us that a hikers' underpass would be a public benefit and agreed on working to modify the existing design. They also suggested we approach some people at the upper levels of State government and we took their advice. By June Aaron Mair and the Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens joined Save the Pine Bush and the Sierra Club in promoting the hikers' underpass on the premise that the Pine Bush is a unique area and also a city forest and a benefit to all City residents. On June 15th, the three groups sent an appeal to Governor Patacki with a detailed description of the geographical particulars and historical background. On June 12th we received an encouraging letter from the Executive Director of the Thruway Authority John Platt indicating that Governor Patacki had asked him to respond to our proposal. He stated that a feasibility study was underway and support and cooperation would be needed from Albany County Highway Department and the Pine Bush Management Commission and that they were both being contacted. The letter concluded with:

"We recognize the valuable asset represented by the Pine Bush, in its intrinsic ecological value and the historic significance of the Old Kings Highway. We look forward to participating in the restoration of the trail if possible and to forming a good working relationship with Save the Pine Bush as we have developed with the Albany Pine Bush Commission."

Just after this, Environmental Advocates published an appeal for support for this effort in their Green Sheet which is mailed to environmentalists all across New York State and more people, agencies and organizations became interested in the project. To our great surprise and pleasure, a few weeks later the Thruway Authority, with the support of the Pine Bush Commission, decided to definitely go ahead and construct the hikers' underpass. The design was described at that time as an "8' wide trail with a crushed rock surface and a short block retaining wall, separated from the Thruway by a clear space buffer zone, an 8' high chainlink fence, and concrete barrier or box beam guide-rail...."

The Thruway Authority had initially hoped that the Commission might chip in for the cost of this redesign but this was neither possible nor practical, so the Thruway Authority payed the entire cost of approximately $70,000. The Pine Bush Commission has agreed to pay for routine maintenance and also for a possible future modification to connect the underpass to the Rensselaer Lake Bike Path (although Save the Pine Bush hopes the bike path isn't connected to the underpass, at least not directly, for it could adversely impact the Kings Highway and a nearby Indian path discovered by Save the Pine Bush two years ago.)

In a recent phone conversation with the project consulting engineer Dick Brady, I was informed that the hikers' underpass is now complete. All that remains is to connect the entrances to existing trails in the Preserve and to remove the temporary light fences at the gates at either side of the underpass. Arrangements are being made for us to meet with Joel Hecht of the Pine Bush Commission to ensure that no damage is caused in connecting exits from the underpass to the Kings Highway.

The Thruway Authority has the thanks of Save the Pine Bush, the Sierra Club and Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens for Environmental Justice for what they have done. I have never before seen an agency respond so quickly and in a more than satisfying way and thanks, too, to Governor Patacki, the Pine Bush Commission, Environmental Advocates and all the others who helped to bring about the exciting conclusion to this project.

published December 1999/January 2000 Newsletter
Last Updated 12/3/99


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