As someone who’s held and continues to hold the opinion that the Ulster & Delaware will do more people more good as a free-to-all walking trail than a mostly-disused corridor with sections upon which for-profit pleasure trains run periodically, I think a couple of things about the county executive’s proposed rail-with-trail compromise: 1.) it’s an acknowledgement that tourist trains have some potential as economic stimulus and 2.) if the people currently involved with the Catskill Mountain Railroad want to continue to be the ones running these trains, they should ignore the voices which want more, lest they end up with nothing at all.
Let’s give the CMRR its due — in the past few months, it’s gone from what was in essence a 1:1-scale train set for a dedicated group of hobbyists to something approaching what it’s always been cracked up to be: a viable enterprise. Any objective observer would see the potential Thomas the Tank Engine and the Polar Express promises in bringing cash-carrying families to Uptown Kingston. Had this not happened, we’d be where we were before: in a legal stalemate, with Hein holding the advantage as all he has to do is wait ’till the lease expires in 2016 for him to prevail. Hein’s plan allows the Thomas/Polar Express potential a chance to become reality. (Do little kids really need a train ride of more than a couple miles each way? If the answer’s yes, then there’s always Metro-North, or the ride further up in the mountains.)
But the Hein deal also allows for a more important reality: the conversion of the U&D corridor going back into the city into a trail which people can walk on. Why this is important, more important than a tourist train, for me comes down to fairness to the lower-income people of the city who can’t afford to take their kids on a pricey tourist train and need healthy no-cost recreation and exercise. (Would any financial benefit the train would bring be wiped out by the increased burden of healthcare costs from Midtowners deprived of that chance to walk and lose weight?) There’s also the quality-of-life improvement dividend for the poor folks who live along the tracks who’ve been tormented by the noise, stench, foundation-cracking vibrations and undeniably dismissive and arrogant attitude of CMRR officials past for decades.
The railroad’s supporters seem to be missing or in denial of something I’ve noticed since the rail-trail plan was first unveiled back in 2013: the telegraphing of the concept that someone else (or no one at all) would be brought in to run the trains in the CMRR’s place. In Hein’s release this week, Jeannette Provenzano was the latest lawmaker tapping out the code: “Regardless of who the future operator of the railroad will be in 2016, this is a ‘win-win’ for both rail and trail.” I suspect this translates to “the stick behind the carrot.” It’s perfectly plausible that after the rail requests for proposals have been answered, none, including CMRR’s, could be found to be acceptable in the county’s eyes and the tourist trains cease for good.
I’m not trying to minimize the passion and commitment the railroaders have shown, and I do think Hein could have been more diplomatic and inclusive as his rail-trail plans started to take shape. If he had, and had the railroaders been cooperative as well, then a lot of money could have been saved on lawyers and a lot of feelings spared. But the way I see it, the CMRR has two ways to change the equation to get a deal they’d like better: 1.) as a for-profit venture, get a venture capitalist (Hello, Sean Eldridge?) to commit to investing big bucks, maybe enough to buy the corridor outright from the county, or 2.) make Hein pay politically for his stance. The former seems vastly more likely than the latter; while Hein is not quite the alpha and omega of Ulster County politics, he’s at least the alpha and phi or chi. People grouse and we hear rumors of rebellion but consider this: his budget passed the legislature unanimously and with some tweaks, but none that affected the final total. (One change was taking money away from perceived/alleged Hein rival Elliott Auerbach’s comptroller’s office; make of that what you will.) Also consider that the resolution calling for the tracks in the City of Kingston to be removed to make way for the trail passed 18-4. Not unanimous, but not a contest, either.
The compromise is what a compromise is: a deal where neither side gets it quite the way it wants it. The CMRR should realize this is as good as it’s going to get and move forward from here.