Over 70 people attended the Shandaken town board meeting on February 10, with 22 of them commenting on a resolution that expressed support for the Phoenicia-based Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR). The resolution, proposed by supervisor Rob Stanley, called on the railroad and Ulster County to set aside their differences and get to work on a rail-plus-trail solution to the ongoing controversy over the fate of local tracks.
Towards the end of the night, the board approved the resolution by a vote of 3-2, with Stanley and council members Vin Bernstein and Alfie Higley voting in favor. Recently elected members Tim Malloy and Faye Storms suggested the proposal be tabled and reworded to emphasize support for the trails component.
CMRR maintains and operates the remnants of the historic railroad that once brought vacationers to the mountains but is now limited to a six-mile tourist attraction running from Phoenicia to Boiceville, plus a two-mile section in Kingston. The all-volunteer group is two years from the end of its 30-year lease of the tracks from the county. With plans in the works for a hiking and biking trail along the railroad line, the county has tried to terminate the lease, alleging CMRR’s failure to properly maintain the tracks as required. The parties are currently embroiled in a lawsuit, with CMRR citing the damage inflicted on the tracks by Hurricane Irene in 2011 as an obstacle to recent maintenance efforts.
Comments at Monday’s meeting ran about two to one in favor of the resolution, with many CMRR members and volunteers pointing out the importance of the railroad, both in attracting tourists and money to the region and in keeping history alive. Opponents of the resolution agreed that the CMRR trains should remain active in Shandaken but wanted the board to express more support for a trail system that they believed would bring in more visitors and economic benefit than the railroad has done.
“The railroad is a living link. We can experience what people experienced 100 years ago,” said Paul LaPierre, a resident of Jewett in Greene County, also on the board of the Empire State Railway Museum (ESRM), which runs the Phoenicia train station. He said the Haines Falls and Phoenicia stations were both “instrumental in the development of the western parts of our counties” and saw up to 27 trains per day passing through at the peak of the railroad era.
Joe Michaels of CMRR said, “We are unique. Trails are not.” However, several speakers observed that most trails in Shandaken involve uphill hikes, while a rail trail would proceed along largely level ground, serving the needs of older and younger hikers.
Dakin Morehouse, president of ESRM, said ridership is up 65 percent since Hurricane Irene and is expected to continue growing. With expansion of track to the west of Phoenicia — although the railbed has washed away in places due to flooding — he asserted that “we could serve the ski slopes and the proposed megaresort.” He referred to the dream of repairing the tracks to the extent that a commuter railroad from Delaware County to Kingston could be rebuilt — a measure that rail trail supporters call prohibitively expensive.
While the county has agreed that parallel rail and trail could coexist, but only for the stretch from Boiceville to Phoenicia in Shandaken, the cost of widening the right of way to accommodate both entities in other parts of the county has also been deemed excessive. The county wants to tear up track to build the trail, while railroaders insist that with modern excavating equipment, space could be made for both.
With the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) offering $2.5 million for a trail — without rail — along the Ashokan Reservoir, some speakers said the county would be foolish not to take the money, while others objected to being pushed around by New York City.
“I think you can have both rail and trail,” stated Phoenicia resident Janet Klugiewicz. “There’s a lot of money available for trails, and it’s being used as way to blackmail people into tearing up the rails. There’s always money for something. If you promote a vision and sell it, you’ll be able to find funds.”
Stanley read aloud a few of the many emails on the subject received by the town board, including a message from Kathy Nolan and Kevin Smith of Friends of the Catskill Mountain Rail Trail, asserting that a study predicts up to 140,000 annual visitors to an Ulster County rail trail, eager for a lengthy hike or bike ride and willing to spend $3.1 million a year. Such a crowd would dwarf the current estimate of 10,000 to 12,000 annual riders of the CMRR. Nolan and Smith also pointed to the Walkway over the Hudson, which exceeded expectations of usage and income by a factor of three. As for the DEP’s proposal for an 11.5-mile trail along the north side of the Ashokan Reservoir, the writers observed, “It will create a stellar tourist attraction that can feed visitors right to Shandaken’s door.” They objected to the failure of the town’s resolution to note this opportunity.
One resident who is a long-distance cyclist said that on his trips, including a recent bike ride from Jacksonville, Florida, to Kingston, he spends about $1000 per week on food and lodging. He added that long-distance bicycle trails are being developed in many areas of the country, attracting cyclists from around the world.
Stanley assured listeners that the resolution was meant to support building a rail trail in Ulster County. He dismissed comments suggesting that the statement threatened to draw the county’s ire. “It’s time to stop the bickering,” he said. “Maybe it’s reinvigorating the [CMRR] volunteers. But we’ve got to bury that stuff and move on. We want to see this settled.”