Berne taking steps to improve safety along state routes 85 and 443

— Photo from Google Maps

The intersection of state routes 85 and 443, in Berne, known as Mallory’s Corners, make up one portion of what Berne Town Board member Joel Willsey refers to as the “Helderberg Gateway,” which stretches from Mallory’s Corners to New Scotland.

BERNE — As Berne explores ways to improve the safety of certain roads within its boundaries, town board members Joel Willsey and Bonnie Conklin have sought advice from the New York State Department of Transportation on how to address dangerous guardrails, narrow shoulders, and speeding drivers on state routes 85 and 443.
Willsey, who retired last year from a long career with the Department of Transportation and whose tenure on the town board is defined by his focus on road safety, told The Enterprise this week that he’s “optimistic that the Department will take this initiative seriously,” adding, “This all will take a lot of time.” 

“Ultimately the goal is to make the state highways through Berne more attractive to bicyclists and pedestrians while improving general safety,” Willsey said.

In a slideshow shared with the Berne Town Board earlier this month, Willsey laid out a four-part plan to address specific safety concerns that he and Conklin have been fielding from residents. The parts of the plan are:

— Lower the speed limit of State Route 443 from 55 mph to 45 mph in the stretch between the Clarksville Stewart’s and the East Berne Stewart’s, and make the same change along State Route 85;

— Increase shoulder widths of State Route 443 from the Clarksville Stewart’s to the Schoharie County line;

— Address deficient guardrails and adjust their placement to increase the width of shoulders to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians; and

— Improve the intersection of state routes 85 and 443 at Mallory’s Corners, which Willsey says has been the site of several high-speed crashes, to reduce turning speeds and improve safety.

“Residents have asked me to put info together for a petition,” Willsey told The Enterprise. “I would like to poll residents in the process to see the level of support for the four items.”

He said that Berne Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger has, in the past, requested that the Department of Transportation lower the speed limit in the same vicinity, but that his request was denied. Willsey hopes that a petition will prompt the Department of Transportation to revisit the issue and come to the desired conclusion.

Bashwinger could not immediately be reached for comment.

“When all is said and done, a small town is at the mercy of DOT,” Willsey said, “and, if the guy evaluating the need decides it’s not necessary, you need a grassroots effort, petitions, letters, etc. to persuade the DOT.”

To address safety concerns, Conklin has proposed sidewalks in more densely populated areas of the town, like the hamlet, which Willsey has been advising her on. He told The Enterprise that the two have since been working together on the general issue of roadway safety. 

Calling sidewalks a “very long-term” goal, Willsey said, “I think the first step is making sure the people want them, and then balance public sentiment with the improved safety and comfort appeal for visitors. Walking in the road or on narrow shoulders is not comfortable, and unappealing for visitors.”

He said that widening the shoulders would contribute to the same purpose as sidewalks, while being easier to achieve.

“If the department’s maintenance group can reset guide rails further from the pavement in specific areas, safety will be vastly improved for bicyclists and pedestrians in those areas,” Willsey said. “Then, if the design group is kept aware of our shoulder goals, perhaps some projects that are beyond the capacity of maintenance can be designed for safety improvement projects. 

“We have culverts that are too short to accommodate shoulder width improvement. That type of work would often require hydraulic analysis and design work.  So the long-term goal would be safer, continuously wider shoulders up the hill from the Clarksville Stewart’s to the area of Helderberg Bluestone where the highway was reconstructed around 1965.”

In an email to Albany County’s Acting Resident Engineer, Christopher Ward, Willsey laid out specific requests related to the four-step plan, including a traffic count, speed study, and accident study.

Ward responded that he shared the requests with his colleagues at the Department of Transportation and that some sections of guardrail within the town were already scheduled for replacement this year. Ward did not immediately respond to an Enterprise inquiry about which sections would be replaced.

Ward redirected Enterprise inquiries about the requests to a public information officer, who did not answer the questions before publication.


Town vs. state roads

The town is required to seek help from the Department of Transportation on the issues above because state routes are under state jurisdiction. 

Though Willsey’s concerns about the condition of roads in the town are broad, he’s been particularly vocal about roads maintained by Highway Superintendent Bashwinger, often creating conflict between the two, and drawing ire from Bashwinger’s robust group of supporters.

In addition to being the town’s highway superintendent, Bashwinger had previously chaired the town’s Republican Party committee before becoming chairman of the Albany County GOP, and he also operates a Facebook page that updates residents on the condition of town roads — all to say that he has a much higher profile than most other highway superintendents. 

Having been the force behind the Republican Party’s rise to power in Berne during the 2019 election, Bashwinger also enjoys general support from Supervisor Sean Lyons and the remaining three GOP-backed board members, including Conklin. Willsey is a Democrat, currently the only one on the town board; he is not seeking re-election in November.

When Willsey was accompanied by two other Democrats in 2019, the trio requested that an engineer come to evaluate the town roads for their safety, which Bashwinger derided as a political maneuver.

However, none of these tensions appear to be present with Willsey’s current proposal, which is backed by Conklin.

“I feel many residents would be satisfied with these projects, as the outcome would involve all of our safety concerns,”  Conklin wrote in an email to Willsey that The Enterprise was included on. “I look forward to working with you and DOT.”

When Willsey shared his four-part plan with the town board, Lyons wrote back that the requests were “worthy of review” and asked the board to be ready to discuss them at its July meeting.

Willsey explained to the board that, when he was working for the Department of Transportation, he wasn’t allowed to speak publicly about complaints he would receive from residents regarding the safety of routes 443 and 85, and that, now retired, he “recently received due criticism for not criticizing the state highways like I do the town highways.”

“I think this is a busy corridor that has been neglected because we are a bit out of the way up here,” Willsey wrote. “The improvements would make the corridor much safer and be more inviting for bicyclists who would see what Berne has to offer.”


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