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Anglers get surprise access to Hudson One-man protest results in deal for a railroad crossing

CORTLANDT, N.Y. — CORTLANDT, N.Y. - For decades, anglers along the Hudson River have been drawn to the wrong side of the tracks - the side with the water on it. They've risked fines and arrest for unlawfully crossing the railroad tracks, just to get to the best fishing spots.

But John Cronin has taken steps to change that.

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Giving the Metro-North Commuter Railroad fair warning, he had planned to cross the tracks to go fishing. His goal: to get attention for being arrested, so he could challenge the railroad's right to block access to the river. And the fish.

It used to be, in the old days, that roads let people get across the tracks and to the river. But to the distress of Cronin and others who fish, the roads are gone. Hence, the planned one-man protest.

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It worked - but not as expected. Instead of being met by police, Cronin, an environmentalist, was joined by the railroad's top lawyer and by Gov. George Pataki's counsel, Michael C. Finnegan. Together, the three announced a plan to begin improving access to the river by creating safe overhead crossings for pedestrians.

The switch from civil disobedience to harmonious trackside news conference followed a morning of heated telephone talks involving the railroad, Pataki's office and Cronin's organization, the Hudson Riverkeeper Fund.

'A surprising turn'

"I'd like to be able to say this is what I had in mind all along," said Cronin, who left his fishing rod at home once it was clear that an accord had been reached. "But it really was a surprising turn of events. It represents a 180-degree turn from what Metro-North ,, has been saying for quite a long time. Rail officials' focus has always been on running a railroad, not on providing public access."

In fact, building new walkways to the Hudson would represent a sharp change in the policy of the railroad and New York state after a century in which dozens of crossings were closed after people seemed to have lost interest in the river. In many cases, old crossings were dismantled or fenced off, without benefit of public hearings, lawyers for the Riverkeeper organization said.

Interest in improving access to the river banks has followed renewed interest in the river itself, now that much of the pollution that rendered it unswimmable and unfishable has been cleaned up, Cronin said.

Question of money

Despite the smiles, nobody flatly committed any money to building pedestrian bridges, or even said how much they would cost. Money could be available in the newly approved state budget to pay for finding the best spots for the crossings, Finnegan said. He explained that the budget included $750,000 for helping to improve commercial fishing along the Hudson; some might be used to improve river access.

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The 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act could also provide funds, he suggested. And the governor would, he added, support legislation to pay for the crossings.

"We hope that the agreement acknowledges the points of view of both parties: one, that safety is important, and two, that traditional fishing areas are important," Finnegan said. He added a personal note: "I was once one of those boys who illegally crossed the tracks up near Peekskill to go fishing."

The railroad will soon schedule public meetings with communities and with fishermen so it can prepare a plan for building safe crossings, said Richard Bernard, vice president and general counsel for the commuter railroad.

"Safety is the primary issue," Bernard said, "but also our interest in making sure, as a good neighbor, that we can help improve access to the river."

He said the Metro-North police would shift from a policy of fining or arresting trespassers to one of public education and safety. "We are not ticketing people, arresting people, harassing people," Bernard said. "We don't intend to do that. But we will try to protect people, to make sure that they don't jeopardize their own safety and the safety of others."

On average, one person is hit and killed by a Metro-North train every month, said Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman for the railroad.

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Pub Date: 8/10/97



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