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NY leader near deal to study, improve rail crossing safety

ALBANY — Legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday agreed to a package of measures to improve safety at rail crossings statewide including nearly 300 that cross the Long Island Rail Road’s tracks.

The late-session measure will require frequent inspections of traffic controls at rail crossings with roads and highways and impose penalties on railroads as well as drivers who repeatedly disobey the law and ignore safety requirements. The measure will put the state in alignment with federal requirements for safety checks and inspections of railroad bridges.

Rail companies that violate crossing safety laws could face $5,000 fines, or as much as $15,000 in fines if the trains carry hazardous material. “Gate running” by vehicles whose drivers seek to avoid waiting for a train would carry a $750 fine for a second offense in addition to current sanctions, and a $1,000 additional fine for a second and third offense. Operators of buses and trucks carrying hazardous material would face an additional fine of $500 for a second offense of failing to stop at a rail crossing and $750 additional fine for a third offense.

“This agreement will help to reduce the amount of preventable tragedies,” Cuomo said Monday.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said the checks will be efficient because they will be coordinated with federal inspections.

“This agreement establishes a program of joint safety inspections of traffic signals at railroad grade crossings, gets tough on railroad companies that violate the law and increases penalties for motorists who repeatedly ignore safety signals and put others at risk,” Flanagan said.

The measure includes an education program to advise drivers of the dangers at rail crossings.

“Verifying railroad bridge inspections, ensuring that traffic lights and railroad grade crossing warning systems work in coordination, and increasing fines for those who fail to comply with safety standards will make New York a safer place to travel,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).

The package tracks with legislation passed by the Senate and Assembly to begin a study to determine if adequate safety measures are in place at 5,000 highway-railroad grade crossings, according to the bill sponsored by Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown), a member of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference.

The researchers would examine if there are any obstructions that get in the way of drivers from seeing trains coming and the feasibility of new technology in trains to avoid crashes with automobiles.

Carlucci said collisions are increasing statewide and that, nationwide, 244 people died at rail crossings last year.

Cuomo included the measure earlier on Monday as a new item among his priorities for the 2016 legislative session, which is scheduled to end Thursday.

Cuomo said his other priorities are measures to combat heroin addiction, ethics reform including the forfeiture of pensions of public officials convicted of corruption, and a law to allow the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants before noon on Sundays.

On Monday, Heastie said discussions continues on pension forfeiture and the other priorities, but “nothing is definitive.”

In April, Cuomo ordered the Metropolitan Transportation to reduce the number of grade-crossing accidents after a commuter train hit an abandoned vehicle at a grade crossing in Bedford Hills.

Off the table in these final days of the session is renewal of the so-called 421 — a property tax exemption that expired in January and which many lawmakers expected to be renegotiated before the end of session, according to officials from the Senate, Assembly and the governor’s office. The tax break was created decades ago to encourage the building of affordable housing in New York City, but its use by wealthy developers of high-price condominiums has tarnished the program.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted the tax break as a tool in his affordable housing program, but Cuomo — with whom de Blasio has been feuding — insisted on adding a provision for unionized work in construction, which soured the deal for developers.

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