Last year, the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail basically doubled in length after it was extended across the Rosendale Trestle in June. The original 11.5 miles of trail that originates in Wallkill is now 24 miles long and goes all the way across the trestle to the City of Kingston line, connecting four towns along the way and includes 1.5 miles of trail at Williams Lake. In December, the Department of Environment Protection (DEP) and Ulster County Executive Mike Hein announced a $2.5 million deal in which the agency will pay to construct an 11.5 mile trail along the northern shore of the Ashokan Reservoir, complete with three to four trailheads and restroom facilities along the way, intended to open up the entire Route 28 corridor of Ulster County to economic development.
As guest speaker at the annual meeting of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association (WVRTA) last Thursday at Elting Library in New Paltz, Hein outlined the plans and the possibilities for the rail trail system going forward in 2014.
“We’re looking to not only create the largest interconnected rail trail system in the State of New York but to connect the Ashokan Reservoir to the Walkway Over the Hudson and ultimately throughout Dutchess County,” he said. “People are going to look back and think, ‘How can anyone not have thought this was a great idea’.”
As Hein told those assembled, there was a time when many — including himself in the beginning — weren’t entirely convinced about the wisdom of investing $23 million-plus to build the rail trails and the Walkway Over the Hudson. Now, he said, with both proven to be major draws for tourism to the Hudson Valley, he’s a “complete convert” to their value in terms of economic development as well as the healthier lifestyle and enjoyment of nature the trails offer visitors and residents alike.
From the economic development perspective, Hein said, extending and interconnecting the trail system is crucial. Tourism is a $500-million part of our economy, he noted, adding that he believes we can double that figure in a “relatively short period of time.” Thanks to the marketing of our region by ulstercountyalive.com in the metro New York area, Hein said, tourism in our county has gone up 23 percent since 2009.
“When we talk about what the trail system can mean to our community, I don’t say it lightly, but it’s literally going to be the difference between huge success and just very small and gradual improvement,” Hein said. He noted that people in the region often think of themselves as being from a particular town, but that one of the “unforeseen benefits” of rail trails has been in the way they bring residents of the Hudson Valley together. And in terms of tourism, he said, that means we “maximize ourselves to the world,” creating an identity for the 50-million visitors to the metro New York area every year. “I believe that it’s critically important that we tie all of our futures together,” said Hein, “and that’s one of the great things that rail trails have the capacity to do.”
Hein said he met recently with Commissioner Joan McDonald from the DOT and Commissioner Joe Martens of the DEC to discuss connecting the Town of Lloyd with New Paltz through the rail trails, opening up through DOT the entire right of way with Route 299. And there is even the possibility to connect the trails with a railroad train that Hein said could be a “best-of-both-worlds scenario” along the western edge of the Ashokan Reservoir, where a train that went into Mt. Tremper and the Phoenicia area would be a destination for bikers who ride along the trail that will be built on the northern shore of the reservoir, who could then put the bike on the train and go for a ride. “We could tie in the trails to the history of the railroad in our region,” Hein said, and along with other historic places that the rail trail goes through, like historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, tap into those tourist dollars. “And statistics show,” said Hein, “that those coming here for historic tourism spend significantly more on average.”
One thing that will have to be part of the plan, he said, is signage along the way that allows visitors to know exactly where on the trail they are at all times.
In order to bring all these projects to fruition, Hein said, they’re seeking another $1 million from the Catskill Watershed Corporation to supplement the additional $2 million in the Environmental Protection Fund dedicated by Governor Andrew Cuomo. “We’re still working out the exact details,” Hein added, “but at that point we’re talking about really serious money, and the ability to move forward.”
Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association president Irene Berner said that their focus during the past year has been on strengthening the organization. “And we’ve been successful in that,” she said. “We’ve updated our strategic plan and we’re now operating with an effective committee system.” The group is in the process of updating the website to make it more user-friendly and interactive, with a new, more informative GIS map for the full trail in the works. In addition, the organization plans to create some new events for the trail, as well as collaborate with other groups. New members and volunteers are always needed, Berner said.