Commentary: Yes on R-275 is a matter of fairness

By Kevin Smith and Kathy Nolan

The Ulster County Legislature is poised to pass a forward-looking policy next Tuesday, Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. on the sixth floor of the County Office Building. This is a critical moment — we urge Ulster County residents to attend the meeting and contact their legislators and ask them to support Resolution 275. R-275 calls for a future of segmented trail and continued tourist rail west of Boiceville in the Ulster & Delaware Corridor, with the trail connecting in the City of Kingston to the proposed Kingston Greenline and Ulster County’s growing interconnected trail network.

To ground a deliberate and comprehensive debate on R-275, we believe we must focus on issues of fairness that form the basis for our enthusiastic support for R-275.

First, Ulster County legislators and the Ulster County executive must be fair to our community by preserving the valuable public asset of the U&D Corridor itself, which is deserving of our best possible care, investment and stewardship for the future. The preservation, restoration and most feasible utilization of the corridor and addressing now well-documented deterioration and fragmentation of the U&D Right Of Way must be our immediate focus — while there’s still time.

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Municipal officials, local residents and business owners in Midtown and Uptown Kingston and in the seven communities along the U&D Corridor and Route 28 deserve to be treated fairly when considering the highest and best economic activities that can feasibly take place in the corridor. We need well-grounded and comprehensive plans to restore and use a corridor that runs through these communities that, as recently noted by the town supervisor of Olive, has provided little to no economic benefits to the local community and businesses there for over 22 years.

kt logoWithin the City of Kingston, Ulster County’s future policy and actions in the corridor should be fair to residents in Midtown neighborhoods whose houses or apartments adjoin the rail corridor, and Uptown residents in complexes like the Dutch Village apartments. Many of these people have lived for decades with diesel fumes, house-rattling vibrations and noise, as well the adverse effects on their property values of an often-poorly maintained, little-used corridor that has attracted harmful activities. Fairness requires that decision-makers take into consideration the many impacts of both planned and proposed theme activities of the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) on businesses and residents along the corridor and on Washington Avenue. What justifies asking these communities to tolerate 63 planned train round-trips (126 passages of the train by residents’ apartments and across Washington Avenue) during just two weekends in September?

Moreover, approximately 10 percent of the adult population in the City of Kingston does not own a car (there are also similarly large percentages of children). This makes it a basic question of fairness to consider the highest and best use of a linear corridor that could provide safe, free, convenient and enjoyable connectivity for neighborhoods. A use that would link people to work and shopping, children to their schools (for example, Kingston High School is located very close to the future convergence of three rail trails), and families to places of recreation.

The same considerations should hold in communities along the U&D Corridor and along the Wallkill Valley, Hurley and Marbletown rail trails where, along with many people enjoying the trails for recreation, increasing numbers of people, including those of limited means, walk or use a bicycle for essential travel between home and work. Scarce dollars that do not have to be spent on cars, buses and taxis mean financial resources available for other important needs.

Likewise, people within the City of Kingston deserve safe, convenient access to open spaces and the many beautiful places of natural beauty and high quality recreation only a stone’s throw from the city within the Catskill Park — DEC day-use facilities at Onteora Lake (connected to miles of forested trails in the Bluestone Wild Forest), and 11 and a half miles of planned multi-purpose trail along the Ashokan Reservoir.

In the era of climate change, it is also a matter of fundamental fairness for Ulster County to adopt a policy, years in the making, which help implement goals of the 2008 non-motorized plan. Such plans, when embraced elsewhere, have significantly lowered greenhouse-gas emissions by providing safe, attractive, convenient non-motorized transportation corridors within and between communities as alternatives to automobile use. Better, safer, connectivity equals more users for more purposes.

Further, this ADA-compliant trail will likely have the salutary effect of improving public health and reducing disease by promoting active lifestyles — reducing future health care costs borne by taxpayers in the process — and further narrowing income disparity.

Promoting public health through wise investment in a public open-space asset like the U&D Corridor can also be viewed as a fundamental issue of fairness.

Does the CMRR deserve to be treated fairly? Absolutely. R-275 will continue to protect for future train operations on almost all of the track that the railroad has used over the past nearly 30 years. The new policy would simply require them to consolidate their future plans and proposals west of the Ashokan Reservoir, where most of their ridership has been focused in the past.

Despite three decades of exclusive control over the corridor, the CMRR has had a decidedly mixed record of performance, despite their very best efforts. But the wishes and desires of CMRR’s shareholders and officers must no longer be given priority to the detriment of Ulster County’s interests and the health and prosperity of our communities. And the fact that many millions of dollars in trail funding commitments have already been secured, including a landmark $3.5 million agreement with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, should be given utmost consideration in light of the CMRR’s inability to attract the level of capital investment necessary to restore and maintain the corridor between Kingston and Phoenicia and return it to active tourist rail operations.

It is certainly only fair that proposals by train company officials be subjected to the same accepted professional planning and engineering standards that Ulster County and local municipalities are required to employ.

Our hope is for CMRR to begin to work with Ulster’s elected officials to embrace the greater good: the pursuit of the earliest, most economical restoration and combined use of as much of the U&D Corridor as possible. That’s a hookup to the Kingston Greenline and Ulster County’s interconnected trail system — including revitalized tourist rail west of the Ashokan Reservoir — and the myriad benefits these will bring to Ulster County residents, businesses and visitors.

Please contact your legislator and request they vote “yes” on R-275, and come out to support R-275 on Tuesday, Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Ulster County Building on Fair Street in Kingston. Let’s build these trails!

The authors are co-chairs of the Friends of the Catskill Mountain Rail Trail — visit www.facebook.com/FriendsOfTheCatskillMountainRailTrail and catskillmountainrailtrail.org for more information.

There are 13 comments

  1. Citizen K

    Wow… that’s really long.
    R-275 says tear up a lot of tracks, put in a bike and pedestrian rail trail… R-275 is what Hein proposes, CMRR opposes it.
    Then you say “we support this: lets build the trail!”

    Otherwise, Catskill Mountain RR and Catskill Mountain Rail and and Catskill Mountain Rail with Trail…
    Do actually think the Rail Road has a chance? (Not)

    Your write up that follows is a good reference to all the thought that has gone into the decision… well done.

  2. meniscus dwentnok

    It’s really not about “fairness”, nor ought it to be… it’s about good public policy, and fairness it NOT an important measure. Doing things that benefit the citizens, and aiming that at least toward the middle class, that’s good policy.
    “Fairness” always gets bent by the very very squeaky wheel, or ox getting gored…
    One gets ones day in court… you’re free to shout, of course, but we need to know that that doesn’t and doesn’t matter.
    We are supposed to learn that as kids when we get our lessons at the supermarket… Do Not Holler.

  3. Gregg Swanzey

    Excellent letter. This is one of the clearest statements to date supporting efforts for the Catskill Mountain Rail Trail and to serve the best interests of Kingston. Thank you.

  4. CP

    Fairness is obviously in the eye of the beholder. The county and the trail lobby has been anything but fair to the CMRR.

    The distortions in this presentation are remarkable for their brashness and their distortions. For example, the article assumes negative health aspects resulting from locomotives. Would they remove diesel trucks from highways and turn them into trails, too? How about low-mileage cars? The absurdity of this argument would be laughable if people weren’t taking it so seriously.

    The article later asks: “Does the CMRR deserve to be treated fairly? Absolutely. R-275 will continue to protect for future train operations on almost all of the track that the railroad has used over the past nearly 30 years. The new policy would simply require them to consolidate their future plans and proposals west of the Ashokan Reservoir, where most of their ridership has been focused in the past.”

    That is not true at worst, slanted at best. The CMRR wants to expand operations to all its lawfully leased track, offer an unparalleled and unequalable tourism experience and grow and develop the improved service it has already undertaken in Kingston. Contrary to fairness, the trail lobby wants to pull the plug and turn off what will be annual money- and tax-generating events like Thomas and the Polar Express even before they happen. Yes, they will require additional train traffic, but that is on a line that was never abandoned, a fact that should have been know to anyone who lives along the right-of-way.

    “The greater good” can be achieved by supporting the CMRR in its expansion, as well as constructing a rail-with-trail option. All the assumed benefits of a trail described above will be free to happen – if they do – and the county will have a good locally-owned corporate citizen as a tenant, maintaining its property and creating a positive attraction rather than having to waste time and the taxpayers’ money defending itself in court.

    For more reasons why lifting the U&D corridor’s rails is an awful idea, see the comment by James Falcaik here: http://www.kingstonx.com/2014/08/15/hugh-reynolds-train-in-vain/#comments. You’ll see empirical proof why the trail lobby’s pie-in-the-sky wishes simply won’t work.

    For the greater good of Kingston and Ulster County, don’t let the trail lobby’s slanted and distorted treatise keep you from contacting your legislator and telling them to vote NO on the grossly UNfair R-275 on Tuesday, Aug. 19. Let’s give rail AND trail the chance they deserve to thrive together.

    1. Gregg Swanzey

      Fair to CMRR? The mandate is for what is best for the residents of Kingston and in the best interests of Ulster County taxpayers. The greater good is not necessarily what is in the best interests of CMRR. Kingston bears the brunt but receives nothing in taxes or from the lease yet we have to deal with the impacts of a neglected corridor and respond to complaints from adjacent property owners regarding diesel fumes and noise. A linear park and access from Midtown to Kinston Plaza sounds great to us. Pull up the rails, give us access. It is public property.

      1. James Falcsik

        What about residents that will not, or cannot, use the proposed trail? A train will provide a larger number of people the opportunity to tour your city and the surrounding countryside with a smaller environmental impact than would otherwise exist without the railroad.

        Kingston receives no taxes from the CMRR? Are there no businesses in your town that provide supplies to the CMRR? No tourist that makes a food or keepsake purchase, or buys a tank of gas for the return trip home?

        County taxpayers need to be prepared to support the trail project indefinitely. Once the rails are gone, no hope will exist for any commercial development to contribute to the tax rolls, not even an improved scenic railroad. And if the county doesn’t collect the taxes directly, citizens will pay for it regardless through federal grants for conversion and maintenance.

        If the railroad were to have the same financial support, or just the funds already earmarked for them, perhaps more progress could be made to complete the rail corridor and realize the vision that saved this railroad in the first place.

        1. CP

          Amen to Mr. Fascsik. I would only suggest that given the demonstrated commitment of the railroad and its volunteers to the right-of-way, the rolling stock and the region, I’d change “perhaps” in his last line to “definitely.”

  5. Citizen K

    Ah, I guess my second post didn’t make it: it’s not about fairness, nor ought it to be. “Fairness” is something the winners often put out there… like “we won because, well, that was the fair and just thing to do”…
    In truth, it’s not “fair”… And Shakespeare said it’s not even about justice: “it is mercy we plead for”…
    This is about policy and people who make policy work are bound by law, principal and a careful eye for service to the public.

  6. RG

    This past Sunday, August 16th, I happened to drive by the railroad operation in Mount Pleasant. It was an absolutely beautiful day to be in the Catskills and I would have expected the rail operation to be packed with tourists. To my surprise I noticed ten maybe twelve riders getting off the train at the depot.
    That same afternoon I went to the wonderful Chronogram block party in uptown Kingston. Parking in the lot where the old parking garage was I noticed the train coming through by the plaza crossing. There were no riders in the enclosed car and again a very few riders in the open car, again, maybe ten or twelve.
    I just don’t see the ridership that CMRR keeps talking about.
    It’s time for a new direction.
    Yes on R-275!

    1. CP

      Respectfully, RG, it’s time for the funds which have been held up to be released so that the line can expand and fulfill its potential. That means bringing the C9 bridge back into service and funding the track repair near Cold spring to start.

      You’ll also see it with Thomas and the Polar Express.

      No on R-275.

    1. CP

      On the surface. That’s taxpayers’ money supporting it in full.

      And there are plenty of trails around, but only one railroad.

    2. James Falcsik

      Free? Free in what way?

      The taxpayer foots the bill for converting the railroad to a dirt road. The bridges need planked over and railings installed. Parking facilities need constructed at trail heads. Toilet facilities need to be purchased or rented and maintained. All this requires public money to be maintained year after year.

      The Regional Trail Corp (RTC) in Westmoreland County, PA, has received over $15M in public funds since 2007 to maintain and construct several trails in the county. What in the world is free about a trail system? (At least these trails were obtained AFTER the railroad genuinely abandoned the right-of-way, and some more than 25 years ago, which provides plenty of data to see how they are NOT generating a sustainable economy.)

      So while you might think you don’t have to open your wallet to ride 4 or 5 miles on the trail on a given afternoon, your pocket has already been picked by the local, state, and federal government who supply grant money to develop trail systems. And that was after all branches of government took their cut to pay employees, the light bill, the rent, and the phone bill. So if you think $100 in your taxes went to the trail, think again; if you are lucky, about $20 paid for a bucket of stone.

      Incidentally, one of the trails the RTC did build (at considerable cost) and today maintains is the Five Star Trail between Greensburg and Youngwood, PA. This is a five mile trail-with-rail that functions just fine; the trail is along side the tracks. The Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad is a busy short-line railroad that was hired by the county to operate a 43 mile line that Conrail would have abandoned in 1995. Westmoreland County had vision and the sense to develop both the railroad and the trail. Since 2010 the SWP and the county have enjoyed the commerce, jobs, taxes, and business development from the shale gas industy; something the citizens of Westmoreland County would not have as large of a share in without the railroad.

      In 1995 there was no such industry; you never know what you are giving away by removing the railroad assets. Sometimes you need to care for the future by preserving what you have today.

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