“Imagine a scenario some years out where someone could bring their bicycle on the Metro North train to Poughkeepsie and then ride all the way to the Catskills or Ellenville.” So says Chris White, a New Paltz resident and the deputy director of planning for Ulster County, putting into words a long-held dream of many in the region, from commuters, weekend warriors and day trippers to tourism-dependent local businesses and county executive Mike Hein himself.
It’s a dream coming ever-closer to fruition, as evinced by the February 11 announcement that the Open Space Institute had succeeded in acquiring a 135-acre hayfield just north of Route 299 from the Watchtower religious organization. The parcel represents a critical link in a proposed trail corridor from the Wallkill River crossing all the way up to the Mohonk Preserve, which will eventually provide walkers, cyclists and cross-country skiers with off-road access to the Gunks from Rosendale and Kingston, Gardiner and Wallkill via the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail.
That announcement seems to have opened the floodgates for more news of progress in the efforts by many to make New Paltz the nexus of a “necklace” of interconnected trails, envisioned as eventually extending as far as Hopewell Junction and Fishkill via the Walkway Over the Hudson and the Dutchess Rail Trail; Orange and Sullivan Counties via the Ontario & Western Rail (O&W) Trail through the Route 209 corridor; and the Ashokan Reservoir, central and western Catskills via the Ulster & Delaware Railroad corridor, which Hein has dubbed the Ulster County Rail Trail. The system, once you include the spur to Kingston Point Park via the old trolley tracks, adds up to over 100 miles in total length. “That’s when you start to attract visitors from other regions,” White says.
Pie-in-the-sky talk about this tourist-alluring extensive trail network has been in the air for years, but one by one the key links — like last year’s completion of the Rosendale Trestle renovation — have finally been falling into place. And with the economy perceptibly improving, Hein is now moving aggressively to have Ulster County invest in the infrastructure updates needed to make his oft-cited dream a reality. Last week he released more details of his new $3.5 million budget for improvements to roads and bridges under an initiative that he is calling Building a Better Ulster County (BBUC). “The push of the county executive to do this is huge,” says White.
One example that he cites is Hein’s stepping in on behalf of the Town of Lloyd to secure a commitment of $100,000 from the Scenic Hudson Land Trust last November to help the town put up required local matching funds for federal grant funding of Phase 3 of its ongoing Hudson Valley Rail Trail (HVRT) project. Phases 1 and 2, now complete, link the Walkway Over the Hudson with Tony Williams Park via the abandoned Penn Central Railroad corridor. Phase 3, which Town of Lloyd supervisor Paul Hansut has said will commence construction this summer, will extend the existing 3.6-mile HVRT an additional .7 miles to connect with New Paltz Road. “We’re going to take it a little further on the old railroad corridor that still exists,” White explains. “It will terminate at a small parking lot across from the firehouse,” Highland Fire District Station #2.
That project will still leave a disconnect of several miles from New Paltz, traversable by cyclists only along the hair-raising shoulder of busy Route 299 from New Paltz Road to the bridge over the Thruway. But never fear: Funding under the federal MAP-21 program, funneled through the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT)’s Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), was awarded in the fall for a scheme by the Ulster County Planning Department to take the HVRT yet further, by an additional 1.24 miles.
In Phase 4 of the HVRT expansion project, the 12-foot-wide, asphalt-paved route will continue northwest along an additional half-mile of abandoned rail corridor through three small parcels of private property that will either be purchased outright or rights-of-way obtained. As the route approaches New Paltz Road’s intersection with Route 299 and turns west, it will cross Black Creek — requiring replacement of a 17-foot concrete culvert bridge — and then move onto NYSDOT’s right-of-way paralleling the south side of 299. There, according to White, it will continue an additional .74 miles to the intersection of South Street, where a small parking lot will be built at the trail’s temporary terminus in front of the Central Hudson plant. This last stretch of Phase 4 will be separated from Route 299 traffic by a 25-foot-wide grassy berm, which White compares to the part of the O&W Rail Trail where it parallels Route 209 in Hurley.
The budget for Phase 4 is $1.93 million, 80 percent of which will be funded through the TAP grant. Ulster County has committed to provide $398,000 in matching funds. Work should commence this spring, says White, on selecting contractors, preliminary design, surveying, mapping and groundtruthing of existing conditions; shovels should go into the ground by 2017.
“Our goal is to get the Hudson Valley Rail Trail as close as possible to New Paltz,” White avers, noting that part of the criteria for a TAP grant award is a requirement that the project provide actual transportation benefits — “linking neighborhoods to services” — not just recreational or fitness use. But in order for the WVRT to make it possible, say, for students to commute to SUNY New Paltz from the Poughkeepsie train station by bike, that last 1.4-mile stretch to the Thruway Exit 18 Park & Ride must be completed. “We’ve had conversations with the DOT about them finishing the link to New Paltz, and they have expressed interest in obtaining the funding.”
Meanwhile, as “The county is working from east to west,” as White puts it, the Town of New Paltz has been planning for years to create bicycle-friendly routes between the Thruway exit and the Wallkill bridge crossing. Ironically, the town’s proposal to the same cycle of the same TAP grant program, seeking funding to widen Henry W. DuBois Drive and install sidewalks and bike lanes to provide a parallel route to Main Street, was turned down, even though senator Chuck Schumer came to town last year to stump for the project and hold photo ops on Henry W. DuBois.
But New Paltz town supervisor Susan Zimet seems undeterred, especially since White’s boss is stepping in to lend New Paltz a hand. “Dennis Doyle and I talked today,” she said last Thursday. “He said that Ulster County was going to help us reapply for a grant for Henry W. DuBois.” Funding has already been approved in the county’s Traffic Improvement Program for plans to widen South Putt Corners Road and install sidewalks and bike lanes to make it safer for New Paltz High School students to travel to and from school, she notes. That work, which will also include installing new sewer and water lines while the road surface is torn up, is slated to be done in 2016.
Hein’s new BBUC budget for 2015 allocates $15,000 in aid to New Paltz for the purposes of improving the shoulder on the east side of North Putt Corners Road from Main Street to the top of Henry W. DuBois Drive, to include sidewalks and a bike lane. If plans currently before the New Paltz Planning Board to build a CVS pharmacy are approved, Zimet says, the developer will be required to build the sidewalk on the west side of that same stretch of North Putt at its own expense.
White points out that there is more than one possible way to route bicycle and pedestrian traffic from the Thruway Park & Ride to the Wallkill crossing without hazarding Main Street. While talk up until now has mainly projected North Putt to Henry W. DuBois as the bike bypass, he notes that cyclists could also head south on South Putt to connect with a new path across SUNY New Paltz property to Route 208. “If it were up to me, I’d take it all the way to the Wallkill,” he says.