Willsey files highway complaint for Gifford Hollow Road

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Drop-offs are several feet deep on either end of Gifford Hollow Road in Berne, where it intersects with Switzkill Road. Berne resident and former state Department of Transportation employee Joel Willsey says that the lack of any signs or guardrails make these drop-offs a risk to the general public.  

BERNE — Motorists should be mindful of steep drop-offs on either side of Gifford Hollow Road where it intersects with Switzkill Road in Berne. 

Berne resident and former New York State Department of Transportation employee Joel Willsey filed a notice with the town last week, which, according to New York State Town Law, will make it possible to sue the town should any accident occur because of the hazards that Willsey noted, which include a lack of guardrails or signage around the drop-offs. 

Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger — with whom Willsey, a former town board member, has frequently feuded — did not respond to Enterprise inquiry. 

Both the New York State Department of Transportation and the Albany County Department of Public Works declined to weigh in on the situation because Gifford Hollow is a town road. 

The Cornell Local Roads Program, which advises municipal highway departments on management of roadways, could not be reached. In the past, it has declined to comment without “seeing the site and doing more of our own analysis.”

Willsey claims that the guardrail caps would need to be anchored, and that many of the guardrails in Berne have an unanchored guardrail cap that “unnecessarily introduces additional highway hazards,” citing a 1964 report by the the Highway Research Board and 1967 guidance from the American Association of State Highway Officials.  

In a separate complaint filed on Nov. 28, Willsey further alleged that three culverts running across Gifford Hollow in the same location have been improperly installed, and are at risk of collapsing. 

“If a suitable foundation had been provided and the 4-to-6-inch bedding had been placed as required, the pipe would have a uniform pool full length. As can be seen here, the bottom is very distorted,” Willsey wrote in a slideshow that he attached to his formal notice. 

“If the proper backfill had been placed with specified compaction procedure the pipe walls would appear perfectly round, the pipe alignment would be straight and there would be no buckles in the walls,” he wrote. “It is very clear that this pipe could be vulnerable to catastrophic failure due to poor construction practices.”



Willsey, a Democrat, has long complained about the way Bashwinger, a Republican, has managed roads in Berne, and Bashwinger has long ignored those complaints, criticizing Willsey as partisan. 

 However, while Willsey tends to be the loudest voice on various highway issues in the town, he isn’t necessarily the only one. Berne resident George Duell was the first to alert The Enterprise to the conditions of Gifford Hollow Road, and, in 2021, an overlay job supervised by Bashwinger caught the attention of contractor Rick Rapp, who convinced the town board at the time that the project should be redone.

However, it’s rare for higher authorities to offer insight, since local roads are not held to the same standards as state or county roads, as evidenced by an incident where, in 2019, a woman drove a minivan into an excavation on Bridge Road in Berne. 

Although a sign had indicated the road itself was closed except to local traffic, there were no flaggers or additional signs around the hole that the highway department had been working to fix.

David Orr, the director of Cornell’s Local Roads Program, told The Enterprise at the time that local highway departments typically follow the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices — which suggests delineating work zones from traffic areas — but only as a guideline, and that differing circumstances make uniform adherence difficult.

Though unrelated to road conditions, the Berne Highway Department did receive notice of seven serious safety violations from the state Department of Labor, which had been investigating the department after the death of employee Peter Becker in 2021. 

Willsey has pressed — and pressed again this week — for the town to hire an outside consultant to review road conditions, but Bashwinger has said that any such review “is a waste of money to the taxpayers.”

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