All roads may lead to Rome, proverbially; but in the mid-Hudson, all trails — rail trails especially — seem to lead to New Paltz. And as Ulster County executive Michael Hein’s master tourism plan for a 100-mile “necklace” of bicycle and pedestrian pathways clicks into place piece by piece, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the bottleneck impeding their ultimate convergence is the narrow, aging, storm-wracked piece of infrastructure known as the Carmine Liberta Bridge.
The new bike trail made possible by the Open Space’s recent acquisition of the Watchtower property just north of Route 299 cannot achieve its magnificent destiny of hooking up with the Wallkill Valley and Hudson Valley Rail Trails without crossing the Wallkill River. And as anyone knows who has tried to make it out to the Ulster County Fairgrounds for popular events like crafts fair weekends, the Taste of New Paltz or the July Fourth fireworks, or to head home from a hike in the Gunks late on a summer Sunday or during peak foliage season, making that crossing can sometimes seem as interminable as trying to get into Hades without a pair of pennies on your eyes to pay Charon the ferryman.
But take heart, Paltzonians: Repair or replacement of the deteriorating bridge was identified as a priority action in the New York Rising plan to mitigate the damages caused by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. As the plan notes, “The Bridge is the only roadway access to the west side of the river from New Paltz and heavily trafficked by residents, tourists, commercial vehicles and emergency service providers.” A replacement project “would have long-term benefits with a useful life of 50+ years…by reducing the risk of structural failure of the Carmine Liberta Bridge and inundation/closure of nearby roadways.”
Identifying the Wallkill River at the Route 299 crossing as a “highly ‘stressed’ waterway,” New York Rising calls for “improving the flow capacity of the river” to minimize rates of erosion, loss of adjacent wetlands, flora and fauna as well as upstream and downstream flooding. “The redesign of the Carmine Liberta Bridge would examine existing and future river storm flows so that the chosen design can both withstand future storm events without damage, and so that its floodway constriction characteristics can be understood in the context of regional floodplain management,” says the plan. “The resulting reduction in roadway flooding will provide uninterrupted access to vital health social service facilities and providers.”
That all sounds great, but those epic storms are almost four years behind us now, and we have yet to see much state funding flowing for such “high-priority” projects. So folks might be forgiven for being skeptical when they hear the news that Mike Hein is ready to rock. But it seems to be true: At a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Kingston on February 19, the county executive specifically mentioned repair or replacement of the Carmine Liberta Bridge as one of a long list of major infrastructure projects being added to his “Building a Better Ulster County” initiative for 2015. And county legislator Ken Wishnick has reported that last week the Ulster County Legislature passed a resolution allocating funding for the project. “Although the bridge is still safe, those floods over the years plus wear and tear have done notable damage. County engineers determined that it is better to replace [it] before a serious risk emerges,” Wishnick posted on the New Paltz Facebook page on February 18.
Preparation for this announcement has apparently been going on behind the scenes for months now. “We hadn’t even moved out of the old Town Hall when Mike called to talk to me about this. He’s anxious to get it going,” said New Paltz town supervisor Susan Zimet. She said that she has been conferring with Gail Gallerie of the town’s Transportation Implementation Committee, who was “instrumental in the redesign of South Putt Corners Road” as a member of the South Putt Corners Technical Advisory Committee. “That was a very successful process, so we want to replicate that,” said the supervisor.
According to Zimet, Ulster County planning director Dennis Doyle “wants to create a Wallkill Bridge Technical Advisory Committee” that would incorporate representatives from the county, the Department of Public Works, the joint Town/Village Bicycle/Pedestrian Committee and “somebody from the Downtown Business Association, like Rich Gottlieb.” The Rock & Snow proprietor has been a leading community advocate for several years now for renovation, at least, of the corroded bridge.
The New York Rising plan specifies that “Pedestrian and bicycle paths will be part of the redesign and construction” of the bridge, and Zimet said that designs currently in progress for such trails through the Flats toward the former Watchtower parcel were “all part of the planning for how we redesign the bridge.” She also noted that, although no timetable has been announced as yet, a temporary bridge would have to be built first to keep traffic flowing during the construction phase. Ulster County’s deputy director of planning, Chris White speculated that the temporary structure would be sited just north of the existing bridge, since there are buildings too close to the site on the Water Street side.
In his public statements about the project, Hein has repeatedly stressed that there will be a process for citizen participation in the bridge redesign. White confirmed that Hein has a “commitment to public input,” likely in the form of design charrettes open to the community. “The county executive understands that this is the gateway to New Paltz,” said Zimet. Citing as precedent a bridge recently built in Ellenville without overhead supports, so that arriving motorists would have an unobstructed view of the Shawangunk Ridge, she expressed the hope that the new design would “encompass the vista” that is so definitive of the town.