Next Tuesday’s monthly Ulster legislature session could be the last roundup for Catskill Mountain Railroad supporters who hope to retain the possibility of a tourist train ride from Kingston to Hurley. On the agenda is a resolution that would permit County Executive Mike Hein’s long-standing plan to rip up the tracks from Midtown Kingston to Hurley in order to create a walking trail that would eventually extend to the Ashokan Reservoir.
Under the Hein proposal, CMRR tracks would be left intact between Mount Tremper and Phoenicia to accommodate a tourist train, though not necessarily under the auspices of CMRR. Hein’s plan calls for operation of that four-mile stretch to be put out to public bid after the railroad’s 25-year lease with the county expires in May 2016. The executive and his staff appear poised to extend every effort to assure that vendor is not CMRR.
For the railroad, Tuesday could be Custer’s Last Stand, with Hein reprising the collective roles of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Rain in the Face. (Legend has it that Rain actually killed Custer, among other soldiers, at the battle at Little Big Horn.)
We do not give Hein too much credit here. This was his plan — they call it “vision” on the sixth floor of the county glass house — from the get-go. When the railroad refused to give up its lease with the county, Hein moved to have it voided for failure to meet county standards, which meant returning the road to regular passenger service on the 38 miles of (mostly) abandoned track from Kingston to Highmount. The railroad took the county to court to retain its lease, which is where they are until a judge makes a decision, probably at the end of the year.
Hein claims he can’t remember the name of a single person associated with the railroad, whose leaders and supporters have been pleading their case on almost a monthly basis before the legislature and the public. I won’t say that their pleadings fell on deaf ears, only that the eyes of most legislators looked like Easter hams. If there’s a vocal advocate for the railroad in the legislature, with the possible exception of former chairman Dave Donaldson, that voice has been muted. And Donaldson’s conversion has more to do with his animosity toward Hein — my enemy’s enemy is my friend — than with allegiance to the railroad.
The CMRR has conducted an aggressive public-relations campaign in booking Thomas the Tank Engine next month and the Polar Express in December for its Kingston run. Railroad sources say its website has gotten thousands of hits. But that effort will be a last hurrah. It’s Michael The Train who’s running this show.
There are some loose ends. Hein is requesting some $240,000 in spending authority to conduct a formal engineering and design study for the walking trail from Kingston through the Ashokan, and presumably later down the road from Phoenicia to Highmount. For some cold-footed legislators, that may seem like putting the caboose before the engine. But in the end these are just details. It’s the vision that counts.
The legislature may or may not take up the trail-train resolution on Tuesday. Ulster legislatures are infamous for tabling or avoiding controversial decisions. But if they do vote, I’m guessing it will be all aboard the Mike Hein Special. This guy does not leave the station without all his ducks in place.
Those tracks being ripped up and sold for scrap will mark the end of one era and the start of another.
Here come the judges
While candidates for Ulster County Family Court Judge have been making the rounds to various towns, this Thursday’s candidate session at the Esopus Town Hall will be the first time they’ve appeared together. Democrats Gilda Riccardi of Saugerties, John Beisel of the Town of Ulster and Kevin Bryant of Kingston will face off in a September 9 primary. Republican Keri Savona of Kingston has no opposition, but could probably use the exposure.
On those rare occasions when there are judicial contests, they tend to be rather dull affairs. Though the judicial canon on ethics limits what candidates can say about this or that, sometimes sparks can fly when they get together. I love sparks. Sells newspapers.
If there’s controversy in this race, other than the qualifications and experience of the respective candidates, it’s about “diversity.”
Bryant, 45, is an African-American. If elected he would be the first person of his race to sit on any Ulster County court, including justice of the peace. There are some in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party who see this opportunity as long overdue. That Bryant’s exposure to Family Court — he practices criminal and domestic law for the most part — has been minimal is seen as only incidental to his core group of support.
One need not necessarily have years of experience in a court, as Beisel and Riccardi and to a lesser extent Savona have, to be an effective judge. Some Bryant supporters remind skeptics that former district attorney Mike Kavanagh ascended to state Supreme Court with only law-school memories of civil practice. A quick learner, as is Bryant according to supporters, Kavanagh, with a little help from the bar, got quickly up to speed.
Though Riccardi, 60, not to be confused with the family that once operated a popular downtown Kingston restaurant, doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, she too holds the minority card. Her mother emigrated from Puerto Rico at a time when immigrants from that troubled island were hardly welcomed with open arms (see West Side Story).
In any case, the Democratic primary will be decided by who gets their people to the polls. And if experience holds, a 15 percent turnout would produce something like 5,700 voters (among 38,000 registered Democrats) split among three candidates. The magic number therefore could be around 2,000 votes, with the prize being a clear advantage in the November election.
Candidate billboards and lawn signs have sprung up of late, none of which refer to diversity.
Here and there
It seems almost every politician with a hand to shake is jumping on the War on Heroin bandwagon. And probably years too late. Last week, county exec Hein called a press conference to announce distribution of emergency kits to deal with overdoses. A similar pronouncement came a few days later from the governor’s office. The klieg lights had hardly cooled down before legislature Chairman John Parete put out a release reminding readers his office had called for similar action back in March, with a hint that Hein had rained on his parade. And of course U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer is always prepared to put in a bill.