Latest Developments – DEVELOPING A RAILS WITH TRAILS SYSTEM FOR ULSTER COUNTY
In 2006, a publicly funded feasibility study recommended restoring the railroad in Ulster County from Kingston to Phoenicia, including the spectacular scenic sections along the Ashokan reservoir. The researchers also supported creating a complete trail system from Kingston to the Belleayre ski center in Highmount. Notably, none of the several reports from the last 25 years outlining paths to regional development have recommended a Rail Trail corridor, which customarily involves putting a trail over an abandoned railroad right of way.
BACKSTORY. The New York Central Railroad discontinued its service over the 38 mile route from Kingston to Highmount in 1976, selling the railbed and right of way to Ulster County. The County thereafter negotiated with Steamtown to operate a tourist railway system over these tracks but refused to fund maintenance of the railbed. Since these costs’ staying off the books were probably essential for any company to profit from operating such a railroad, Steamtown declined this deal.
In 1983, the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR), an all-volunteer for-profit enterprise, leased operating rights from the County. Their current contract lasts until 2016. They have been running a tourist train from Phoenicia twelve miles east to Coldbrook Station. Since profitability still almost certainly depends on public funding of railbed maintenance, they have been unable to raise private financing to restore the tracks along the Reservoir. As they are a for-profit operation, they also could not apply for available federal grant money. Though they had hoped to refurbish one mile per year of track, this goal has proven unattainable over the past three decades.
POST-IRENE FEMA FUNDING FOR RAILBED RESTORATION. Two factors have now arrived to change this situation. Hurricane Irene in 2011 finally completely destroyed the Boiceville Trestle over the Esopus Creek, plus about two miles of track leading to the Empire State Railway Museum (ESRM) depot in Phoenicia. This extensive damage, along with much other devastation in the area, has finally activated the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They have now allocated $3.8 million to restore the entire railbed from Boiceville to Phoenicia. About another $5 million would still be needed to uplevel the intact but deteriorated tracks from Kingston to Boiceville. This means that a fully operational tourist railway system between Kingston and Phoenicia along the beautiful Ashokan Reservoir is finally within reach.
GOVERNMENT BACKING OF THE RAIL TRAIL OPTION. In the meantime, trail advocates, led by Kathy Nolan, Chair of the Ulster County Trails Advisory Committee, have supported instead “the vision for a world-class, county-wide, unified trail network, as articulated by County Executive Mike Hein in his proposed budget for Ulster County in 2013.” As part of this plan, the County has approved tearing up the rails beyond Phoenicia to the county line at the Belleayre Ski Center in Highmount. This action will realize $650,000 from the sale of the scrap steel, while presumably enabling the establishment of a trail route over that portion of the railbed.
On January 23, 2013, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed $2 million under the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Capital Budget towards “the development of a multi-use recreational trail along the County-owned Ulster & Delaware ((U & D) Railroad Corridor.” In a press release, Mike Hein touts the tremendous success of the Walkway Over the Hudson, a half-mile stroll over the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie. He speaks of “the dream of connecting the Walkway and the Ashokan Reservoir,” a distance of some 25 miles.
DIFFICULTIES WITH RAIL TRAIL. There are several problems with choosing this path of development, as against a Rails with Trails alternative.
• One is that the prospect of hiking the total of sixty five miles from Poughkeepsie to Highmount will appeal to only a modest number of visitors.
Then too, no revenue will directly accrue from this free trail route.
There is no projected total budget for the completion of this plan. Rather than offering a real bottom line with clear indications of costs, advocates are working in stages, depending on hoped for grant money.
Another drawback is that the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which manages the city-owned land along the reservoir, has repeatedly made clear that they will not permit hikers to use the railroad right of way over this stretch. They are very concerned to protect the pristine purity of their reservoir system, which supplies unfiltered water to 15 million New Yorkers downstate.
Yet another concern is that tearing up the rails from Phoenicia to Bellayre may permanently foreclose the potential allure of a year round rail system for skiers.
One more disadvantage is that the removal of the tracks west of Phoenicia will maroon the fully developed Delaware and Ulster Railroad service from Arkville to Roxbury. Their website also says: “When finances permit, we have the goal of refurbishing the track from Arkville to Highmount that was previously one of our routes, before the track was washed out by severe flooding.”
RAILROAD RESTORATION FROM KINGSTON TO PHOENICIA. In contrast, restoring the railbed, initially just from Kingston to Phoenicia, will create an irresistible new tourist draw. Many thousands will want to ride back and forth, taking in the magnificent landscapes along the reservoir. Ultimately, making the sizeable investment to enable trains to continue on to Highmount will provide still more stupendous vistas, plus an all year magnet.
Setting up tour guide services at each of the stops along the route, using group vans driven by knowledgeable locals, could employ a whole new class of workers. Information kiosks can direct passengers to many currently under-publicized local crowd-pullers, restaurants and shops, plus nearby trailheads. Ticket charges will make the project self-financing, including a County tax sufficient to maintain the railbed, without adding to its budget. This development should bring significant economic benefits to all the municipalities along the route, in providing for the needs of hundreds of thousands of new travelers.
Even the partial course the current tourist train covers, which includes no views of the Ashokan Reservoir, racks up impressive rider and visitor statistics. Despite zero public financing, railroaders have continued building ridership. Dedicated volunteers working even during the winter are making the C-9 bridge near Kingston passable. They have secured the FEMA commitment of major funding. A persuasive 16:00 video, called “Let’s Restore Reservoir Railroading!” states the case for bringing back into service the full route along the Ashokan Reservoir, along with developing a complete cross-county trail system.
THE RAILS WITH TRAILS ALTERNATIVE. Completing the railroad from Kingston to Phoenicia in no way eliminates the trail option. A trail can run alongside the rails from Kingston to the C-9 bridge over the Esopus. It could then continue adjacent to Route 28, until that highway meets Route 28A in Hurley. This lovely rural roadway can provide the basic path for the trail, until it rejoins Route 28 just east of Boiceville. From there, the trail should proceed next to the railroad right of way as far as Phoenicia.
Until new funding arrives to restore the railbed to Highmount, the trail might then carry on atop the rails, using a gravel or wood covering. Some of the very great number of tourists who will want to ride the rails may choose to walk along part or all of this trail route, most likely many more than would respond to the appeal of the whole long trek by itself.
Crucial to success is approaching trail advocates to develop a complete Rail with Trails route from Kingston to Highmount. This would include a realistic sustaining budget, a plan and timetable for implementation, and an inventory of potential sources of ongoing support. Some trail enthusiasts could come to realize that joining forces with railroad zealots on a win-win proposition is likelier to produce a well-used and well-funded trail system than continuing to oppose and undermine rail interests.
A PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP. So one key strategic element is how to secure the additional money needed to refurbish the rails from Kingston to Boiceville. The public-private partnership that the Delaware and Ulster Railroad in Delaware County employs points one way forward. In their case, each municipality owns the railbed that runs through it. The O’Connor Foundation provides base support. The Catskill Revitalization Committee, a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, administers the overall operation.
In Ulster County, its government is an indispensible participant. Their taxing authority can take a sufficient percentage of total revenues to help finance maintenance of the railbed. An evolved form of the Central Catskills Collaborative, containing representatives from the six townships from Olive to Andes, now winding up its work on the Catskill Mountain Scenic Byway project, might expand its remit to represent the interests of each of the communities along the route, including into Delaware County.
Inviting the participation of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development and the Catskill Watershed Corporation, could provide ongoing expert guidance. A strengthened Empire State Railway Museum has the non-profit status necessary to apply for and disburse grant monies. The for-profit Catskill Mountain Railroad can continue to operate the railroad, relieved of the responsibility to pay to maintain the railbed. With the enhanced revenues derived from running trains along the reservoir and eventually up the mountain to Belleayre, they can perhaps at last take on some paid staff to augment their volunteer cadre of railroad buffs.
WINNING STRATEGIES. Next strategic steps:
The Empire State Railway Museum (ESRM) and friends need to raise seed money to follow through on some version of this plan. $10,000 would probably be adequate to start, though $50,000 would be a better goal over time. With these funds, they can hire a knowledgeable, well-connected area attorney to structure the public-private railbed maintenance organization the project requires.
One main challenge now is if possible to forestall Ulster County from following through on its decision to tear up any rails in order to plug a small hole in its finances, at the cost of foreclosing major future potential gains. In private conversation, County Executive Mike Hein has said he believes it will take $50 million to bring the railroad back, an unreachable figure in his view. But given the game changing new factor of FEMA’s determining to fund restoration of the railbed from Boiceville to Phoenicia, a more accurate estimate may be only $5 million more, according to Harry Jameson, Chairman of the Catskill Mountain Railroad, not including outlays for marketing and promotion.
The railroad faction needs much better self-promotion, potentially with the support of a professional public relations company. A coalition of local and national, non-profit and for-profit, articulate, knowledgeable, and devoted rail fans can present an ongoing media blitz. They should be launching a continuous counter-information campaign, in the form of bar graphs, charts, and informative letters to Governor Cuomo, State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, key persons in the DEC and DEP, and the general public.
Rail enthusiasts could use a thermometer drawing or a map comparing how far they might have rebuilt the right of way with the money now going into trails. They can readily answer Mike Hein and trail folks’ claims, by showing the touristic, economic, ecologic, and historic value of an East-West tourist railroad. This route would give the public controlled access to the beauties of the reservoir and link several counties, reaping many under-appreciated returns. Communications could include testimonials gathered via interviews with riders.
ESRM might join forces with Delaware County’s Catskill Revitalization Committee to lobby Ulster County and New York State to change course from relentlessly pursuing an all-trail, anti-railroad approach, to a more balanced orientation facilitating both amenities. The plan to rip up the rails from Phoenicia to the Ulster County border in Highmount is so injurious to the future prospects of the Delaware & Ulster Railroad, that they might even consider a lawsuit to slow down Ulster County’s rush to turn the rails into cash this year.
ESRM”s coalition should also employ an experienced regional planner such as Peter Manning, main author of the Scenic Byway Corridor Management Plan, to undertake to align all the potential participants to work together in their collective best interests. Peter knows where ESRM could most fruitfully apply for grant money to fund development, promotion, and execution of this vision. The Ulster County Department of Transportation might also be an enormously helpful ally in getting it to happen.
An Ulster & Delaware corridor convocation this spring could produce a meeting of the minds of a coalition of players, potentially including even responsive trail supporters. Despite varying local goals and means, everyone shares the dream of revitalizing the region’s economy.
Twenty five years of multiple studies have all agreed on the very great benefits to the Catskill Region of restoring the railroad, along with creating a complete trail route across the County. It is surely past time to listen to the consultants and satisfy the aspirations of partisans by connecting all the players, government and civic, to activate such world-class attractions. The residents of this unspoiled rustic wonderland deserve nothing less.