A group of dedicated rail enthusiasts has been working on restoring the Ulster County-owned railroad from Kingston to Highmount for the better part of a generation. Now, an equally dedicated group of enthusiastic rail-trail advocates say it’s their turn.
Trail people have a powerful ally in county executive Mike Hein, who last October announced a plan for the county to take operational control of the 38-mile railroad bed parallel to Route 28. The intention would be to eventually connect rail-trails all over Ulster County to the state-operated Walkway Over the Hudson, which connects Poughkeepsie and Highland.
That Hein consulted neither rail nor trail advocates before unveiling his plan in his annual budget presentation in Rosendale came as “a shock” to the former, who hold a lease on the track until mid-2016.
“We see this as a real once in a generational opportunity for the seven communities [along Route 28, including Kingston] to participate in the kind of economic development that goes with these rail-trails,” said Kevin Smith, chairman of the board of directors of the Woodstock Land Conservancy. “We think the executive is focused on the highest and best use for this county asset. The railroad’s track record is a matter of record.” Smith claims about 50 active members in his organization, compared to about 80 in the railroad group.
Members of the Catskill Mountain Railroad board of directors signed a 25-year lease with the county in 1991, agreeing to rehabilitate the track and run tourist trains. The county purchased the abandoned track for $1.5 million in 1979 (about $4.7 million in today’s dollars) for its potential tourism value. Under the lease, CMRR is supposed to rehabilitate a mile of track a year, a promise they say has been impossible to achieve given their all-volunteer workforce and limited fund-raising ability. CMRR also pays the county annual fees ($1900 last year) based on net income.
Since signing the lease, CMRR, by dint of its labor and through various fund-raising drives, has partially restored a two-mile section of track from Elmendorf Street in Kingston to Colonel Chandler Drive over the Esopus Creek, and another six-mile stretch from Mt. Tremper to Phoenicia. CMRR has also purchased and restored rolling stock for its tourist trains, which operate sporadically about four months a year. The Kingston section runs a holiday train during December. Board members say the activities attract about 12,000 riders a year.
Can the two uses co-exist?
But trail advocates say the potential for hikers, bikers and even equestrians along the railroad routes is much greater.
Smith and Kathy Nolan, an activist with the Phoenicia-based Friends of the Catskill Mountain Trail organization, point to a recent state study that showed upwards of 80,000 persons a year using the comparatively recent Hurley walking rail-trail that runs along Route 209. The same study claimed upward of 700,000 annual visitors to the Walkway every year. Smith and others believe an influx of tourism on walking trails can enhance the Route 28 corridor from Kingston to Highmount.
While rail and trail advocates say they might co-exist, perhaps with side-by-side operations along the 66-foot railroad right-of-way, the thrust of Hein’s plan is toward extension of trails and the elimination of rail.
Officials in New York City, which owns a ten-mile stretch of railroad next to the Ashokan Reservoir, have informed county officials they would be willing to discuss creation of a pedestrian trail, or reconstruction of the railroad, but not both.