Rail trail bridge over Wallkill closed due to safety concerns

The Wallkill Valley Rail Bridge over the Wallkill River on Springtown Road is currently closed due to a state of disrepair. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The Wallkill Valley Rail Bridge over the Wallkill River on Springtown Road is currently closed due to a state of disrepair. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

When the refurbished Rosendale Trestle was opened to the public in June of 2013, that was supposed to be the keystone, the missing link in the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail (WVRT)’s 22+-mile connection from Wallkill to Kingston. Gaps north of the Rondout were quickly patched by conservation easements wrangled by the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) with assistance from the Open Space Institute. In New Paltz, bike lanes are currently being installed on Henry W. DuBois Drive as part of the effort to link the WVRT with the Hudson Valley Rail Trail’s current terminus near the intersection of New Paltz Road and Route 299 in the Town of Lloyd.

Ulster County executive Mike Hein has become an enthusiastic pitchman for a rail trail network from “Hopewell Junction to Phoenicia.” According to Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association president Michael Reade, at a recent ceremony inducting the WVRT into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame, Elizabeth Waldstein-Reid, executive director of Walkway over the Hudson, spoke of her vision for a continuous “Connecticut to the Catskills” rail trail. And Reade says that the Hudson River Valley Greenway has been conducting a mapping project with an even-more-expansive goal: a “Battery Park to the Adirondacks” rail trail system. Municipalities and chambers of commerce all along these routes start to salivate and get dollar signs in their eyes just thinking about the potential boost to their local economies from active tourism if this big dream comes true.

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There’s just one fly in the ointment: In early November, the Town of New Paltz was forced to close the Springtown Bridge — the WVRT’s pedestrian and bicycle crossing over the Wallkill River — for safety reasons. While the steel superstructure and stone-and-concrete pilings of the 413-foot bridge itself remain structurally sound, the old wooden ties underlying the bridge approach on its west side are badly rotted, some of them split for their entire length. New diagonal wooden decking installed on the bridge and its approaches by volunteers in 1993, in order to open the route to pedestrians, was “never intended to be for motorized vehicles — especially firetrucks,” says Reade. “The approach was very heavily used during Hurricane Irene.”

Because the WVRT, and this bridge in particular, provide the only direct alternative route for emergency responders to access the Springtown neighborhood when it is cut off from Route 299 by flooding, the state storm remediation assistance program New York Rising had made a preliminary commitment of $250,000 in grant funding to repair the bridge approach. However, that offer was recently withdrawn, according to Reade, when a New York State Department of Transportation-supervised engineer drew up a bid for the work with a much higher pricetag. The new specifications were based on standards for carrying a “30,000-pound pumper truck,” requiring paving the bridge and its approaches with enormous quantities of asphalt.

WVLT executive director Christie DeBoer notes that the organization’s intent is to maintain most of the rail trail in its current rustic, unpaved state. She points out that house fires are rarely a problem during flooding events, and that the need for emergency services during Hurricane Irene was for a Rescue Squad vehicle to assist a heart attack victim, not a fire engine. Smaller-scale emergency vehicles would not require the same level of roadway construction prescribed by the DOT engineer, she argues.

Nonetheless, the town — which owns the bridge and the approach, while WVLT owns the conservation easements and the section of the rail trail just north of the Springtown Road crossing — “was doing the right thing,” says DeBoer. “Everybody knew this was coming.” That particular stretch of the rail trail is very wet, she notes. “You never want moisture and debris in contact with metal and wood.”

While a new engineering estimate is worked out using standards more appropriate for a bicycle/pedestrian/horse trail than a highway, the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association is organizing an emergency fund drive to raise the $7,500 necessary for what Reade calls a “Band-Aid solution” to reopen the river crossing temporarily. This would consist of a platform made from “two sheets of three-quarter-inch exterior-grade plywood,” which would be glued to the existing decking to provide greater stability for vehicles and horses. “New York Rising is still not out of the picture” for funding more lasting repairs, says Reade, once the engineering concept is scaled down.

Meanwhile, walkers can cross the bridge from the New Paltz side, but must turn around and retrace their steps when confronted by fencing and locked gates on the Tillson side. Trail users are very unhappy about the situation, naturally. “The first week of November, my phone nearly blew up,” DeBoer reports. “When you have to close something for public safety, it’s not a popular decision.”

Two potential detour routes have been identified for cyclists: The shorter one, along Springtown Road, runs less than 2.5 miles but is hazardous, because “Springtown has no shoulder at all,” Reade says. He is advocating instead that the town ask the DOT for a temporary reduction of the speed limit on Route 32 North between River Road in Tillson and Ann Street in New Paltz from 55 to 40 miles per hour, so that it can more safely be used as a bike route. That 2.7-mile stretch, combined with Old Kingston Road from Route 32 to Huguenot Street, would add up to a 5.9-mile detour, Reade calculates.

Both WVLT and WVRTA are reaching out to municipal, county and state officials to try to work out a solution that is swift, safe and affordable. “We really want this open, and we’re really working to get everybody at the table,” says DeBoer. “If this is an emergency rescue route, that brings it to the state level.”

To donate for a temporary fix to the bridge, e-mail info@wvrta.org.

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