Ulster County Executive Mike Hein didn’t mention the Catskill Mountain Railroad at his state of the county address last month. Perhaps he thought he’d put this long-running controversy to bed with his “Hein rail-trail compromise” announced in early December. Not so.
The word “compromise” suggests a meeting of minds after negotiations between willing parties. In this case, the Hein compromise seems to be the product of one party, Hein and his trail supporters, many of whom were quoted in the Dec. 8 press release as praising the executive for his vision, leadership and willingness to come to terms on this most controversial issue. Of note is that no one from the highly vocal rail community was mentioned in that release.
Maybe because this was no compromise in the real sense of the word. “We have never seen anything on paper from them, other than the press release, nor have they been willing to discuss it in person,” said Catskill Railroad President Ernie Hunt last week, more than two months after Hein’s announcement of an agreement. The administration had rejected requests from the railroad for something more definitive in writing, Hunt said.
“So we really can’t comment on it since we don’t know exactly what the proposal is. All we have seen is a press release, which is sorely lacking in detail,” he e-mailed last week.
I can’t agree with Hunt on the lack of detail. Leading with accolades from nine individuals, ranging from trail advocate Kathy Nolan of Shandaken to Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo to the owners of Dietz Stadium Diner, Hein’s press release goes into detail on ten specific points, several of which the railroad had already conceded. The executive’s concession is that there are short sections of the county-owned right-of-way where rail and trail could coexist. Hein backed off his original plan to shut down the Kingston tourist runs to Hurley, which by then had proven exceedingly popular.
The bottom line is that the Hein compromise, dictated by Hein, gives the railroad what it already has or has offered, but rules out a vital component the railroad says it needs for future tourism promotions.
Or as one railroader told me over coffee, “If we can’t get to the North Pole, we can’t have the Polar Express.”
The North Pole to which he referred was the Glenford dike at the eastern end of the Ashokan Reservoir, about three and a half miles west of Kingston Plaza. Establishing a terminus there, as planned by the railroad, would open up magnificent reservoir and Catskill views and more than double the length of the current tourist run which currently terminates near Hurley on Route 209. The Hein compromise would limit the run to Hurley Mountain Road, a few hundred yards west of its current terminus.
It may have dismayed the power brokers in the executive’s office, but 2014 seems to have been a breakout year for Catskill Mountain Railroad after decades of Toonerville Trolley operation. Through active promotion of the railroad as a tourist attraction — last year’s Thomas the Tank Engine, the Polar Express, etc. — ridership and revenues increased almost fourfold, to about 40,000. According to a 2015-2020 business plan published by the railroad folks this month, the estimated economic impact from out-of-county tourists approached $3 million. Under its lease with the railroad, the county will realize more than $45,000 in rental fees for 2014, compared to less than $5,000 in 2012.
The business plan anticipates annual increases in ridership and revenue of 20 percent over the next five years, which might be optimistic. No mention is made in the marketing report that Catskill Mountain Railroad may not be the beneficiary of its volunteer labors after next year. Its 25-year lease runs out in May of next year, and Hein has repeatedly stated that he plans to put the whole operation out to bid when the lease expires.
Hein has been and will be hailed as a man of vision, one who can look at maps and connect the dots, in this case walking trails. That’s fair commentary. How he gets there is and should be a topic of serious debate, some of which may center on how he runs this government. Verily, it is said that one man’s compromise may be another’s dictate.
Speaking of juggernauts
The Hein 2015 campaign shifted into high gear this month with a telephone poll of some 400 residents on issues (and people) they consider important. Mid-winter polling in an election year is pretty much de rigueur for campaigns that can afford it. One can’t get there without a roadmap.
Hein’s cost for the poll was an estimated $25,000, a good chunk of his $160,000 war chest. Was it really necessary? Shouldn’t an official in office for six years have a pretty good feel for current issues?
Of interest is that the handful of people who talked off the record to us about the poll said there was no mention of the Catskill Mountain Railroad during a lengthy questionnaire, another indicator that the administration considers this a done deal.
Hein hasn’t officially announced for a third term. Unless his February poll uncovers something disastrous, and it probably won’t, look for an announcement shortly after robins thaw out.
It was former Kingston millionaire mayor Ray Garraghan who said “money makes everybody smart.” It’s easier to govern if one has the resources. In that spirit, windfalls in Gardiner and the Onteora school district should offer opportunities for some fiscal imagination.
In Gardiner, a tax assessment settlement with resident actor Robert De Niro left the town board with almost $130,000 in surplus at the end of the year after a chagrinned De Niro reimbursed the town for its legal fees after a long-running dispute over his property value.