An aerial view shows the Western New York National Cemetery.

An aerial view shows the Western New York National Cemetery. (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Safety improvements have been completed at an accident-prone intersection near the Western New York National Cemetery in Pembroke nearly two years after two veterans were killed in a collision with a tractor-trailer there.

Most notably, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs paid approximately $410,000 to construct overhead flashing warning signals in all four directions at the intersection near the cemetery entrance. The flashing lights became operational on Aug. 30, Ricardo Da Silva, a spokesman for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, said on Monday.

“The traffic safety improvements completed by the New York State Department of Transportation and VA at the State Road 77 and Indian Falls Road intersection are in accordance with NY State DOT approved plans and reflect VA’s commitment to ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for the visitors to Western New York National Cemetery,” Da Silva said.

Previously, the State Department of Transportation installed larger stop signs on Indian Falls Road at the intersection of Route 77, including a placard that says: “CROSS TRAFFIC DOES NOT STOP.” The state DOT also installed larger “INTERSECTION” signs and rumble strips on Route 77 while eliminating the passing zones on that highway at that intersection. In addition, the state added “STOP” pavement markings on Indian Falls Road.

Those moves follow several crashes at the intersection, which has seen heavier traffic since the opening of the veterans cemetery in late 2020. Most notably, Arnold Herdendorf and Christopher Rowell of Lockport were killed on Sept. 22, 2021, when they pulled into the path of an oncoming truck after attending a memorial service at the cemetery.

The fatal crash came a year and a half after the cemetery director, James R. Metcalfe II, and a VA planning official, Peter C. Rizzo, urged the agency and the state to improve the intersection, noting that visibility there was poor. But at the time, VA officials ignored their warnings and reprimanded the two officials instead of implementing any changes.

Rizzo, who has since left the VA, said in a text message that he was pleased that the safety improvements had finally been completed.

“It’s been three and half years since Jim and I first sounded the alarm on the dangers of this intersection,” Rizzo said. “Five crashes and two fatalities later, VA owned up to the problem and took steps toward remediation. My heart still aches for the families and friends of Arnold Herdendorf and Christopher Rowell. However, they did not die in vain.”

The four other accidents that have occurred at the intersection since the cemetery’s opening were comparatively minor, but they combined with the fatalities to pressure the VA and State DOT to act.

However, the improvements at the intersection fall short of the solution pushed by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, and some others: a roundabout designed to slow traffic. That proposal was abandoned after the state DOT did a traffic safety analysis at the intersection, which elicited public comments in opposition to a roundabout.

Even so, the flashing lights and other improvements appear to have made the intersection much safer, said Patrick W. Welch, a longtime veterans advocate in Erie County who pressed both for the cemetery’s construction and for modifications to make the intersection less dangerous.

“I’m very pleased to see that steps have been taken toward some cautionary measures to alleviate potential tragedies at the intersection,” Welch said. “From my perspective, it’s well done.”

Anne Rowell, the daughter of the late Christopher Rowell, said she thinks the improvements strike the right balance between safety and convenience.

“I think that a roundabout would be an awful lot,” she said. “And I really do think the signage and the warning lights will inform people about the intersection and will really help a lot.”

(c)2023 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

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