To ride, or not to ride, or maybe to walk. Those are the questions — or at least two of them — surrounding the fate of the Catskill Mountain Railroad for the hearts and minds of railroad enthusiasts, hikers, bikers, politicians, bureaucrats and everyone who wishes to visit or benefit from a trip to the Ashokan Reservoir.
A Facebook posting last week by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill reporting on an 11-mile trip the Kingston Democrat made up the railroad line has triggered the latest round in a long-standing battle that pits supporters of the railroad against supporters of a planned rail trail to the reservoir lands.
In the posting, Cahill extolled the idea that providing rail access to Ashokan lands from Kingston up through Glenford as a “tremendous asset” to the county while contending that “trail development only along that corridor is simply not ready for prime time.”
The reason, he said, was “rock-cut areas where walkers and bikers might be trapped because access on and off the (t)rail was non-existent for unacceptable lengths.”
His posting puts Cahill at odds with supporters of the proposed walking/hiking/biking trail, chief among them Ulster County Executive Mike Hein. The two Democrats engaged in a months-long political donnybrook over the 1 percent add-on to the Ulster County sales tax, a fight that culminated early this year with both combatants claiming victory.
Hein adamantly refused to comment on the rail-versus-trail controversy last week, referring all comments to two supporters of the rail trail plan.
Cahill, for his part, sounded a conciliatory note, saying on Monday his support for the railroad was not another round in his battle with Hein. “This isn’t something between me and him. I believe his position is incorrect, but he’s entitled to his position.”
Hein signed an agreement last month with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that’s expected to open the 11.5 miles of land along the reservoir’s north shore to bikers and hikers, but not railroad trains. If all goes as planned, the trail, which has been closed to the public for a century, will run from Basin Road in West Hurley along Route 28 to Boiceville. The DEP has agreed to provide $2.5 million toward the trail’s planning and construction. While the DEP owns that land, the county has held a right-of-way since 1976 along the reservoir’s shore that was intended for rail usage but never developed.
Today, the all-volunteer railroad hopes to expand along that track from Kingston as a tourist train. To boost its claims of being a viable enterprise, it has brought in several well-attended commercial endeavors such as the Christmas-themed Polar Express and a Thomas the Tank Engine-themed ride.
But those efforts haven’t moved the legislature or the Hein administration. The county’s years-old suit to remove the railroad from the tracks is still under appeal, while the railroad’s lease with the county will be up next May, with signs of a renewal being remote.
‘Mystified’ by Cahill
Cahill’s Facebook posting unleashed a torrent of arguments for and against the railroad; chief among those opposing his contention that a rail trail was unsafe was Kathy Nolan, co-chair of the Woodstock Land Conservancy and chair of the Catskill Heritage Alliance, who says the deal with the DEP is a godsend to the county and trumps any plans the railroad could provide. “We feel the county’s making the right choice here, it’s economically viable and we’ve got very strong public support.” She says the railroad has had its chance to upgrade and maintain the track and failed. Clearly, she says, a deal that includes DEP commitments on parking and marketing a rail trail is the only way to go.
Nolan called it an either-or question, and that the trail agreement was the vastly more feasible and desirable choice.
Kevin Smith, who is Nolan’s co-chair on the Woodstock Land Conservancy, said he was “mystified” by Cahill’s assertion that the proposed trail was unsafe, saying the eventual design will be “world class” and will be able to accommodate full-size emergency vehicles with ease. “The real risk to the public’s health and safety is the sedentary lifestyle that winds up costing taxpayers money in health care costs, costs that can be reduced by getting out in nature.”
Smith buttressed Nolan’s contention by forwarding a description of the DEP agreement that “recognizes that a rail-with-trail scenario is not feasible” along the Ashokan lands corridor.
Asking NYC to reconsider
Cahill says the rail trail-only argument ignores the bigger economic picture and that the current “community minded” leaders and members of Catskill Mountain Railroad have made good-faith efforts to demonstrate the line’s value to local businesses. “They need to go further, but already they’ve plowed everything they have into the community,” he said Monday. Making the railroad a tourism attraction that would go the distance to the Ashokan lands is something he said has been gaining local business support and the support of people who live along the route.
Ernest Hunt, president of the railroad club, could not be reached for comment.
Cahill said he met last week with DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd and members of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to see if the commission would “reconsider” its position. He acknowledged that while Lloyd didn’t appear receptive to the idea, he intends to pursue the issue further.
Cahill called for a “new partnership” of political and private interests that could preserve the railroad and the rail trail concepts. Even if there’s already a plan in place, he said, “any plan can be modified.” He compared the potential loss of a tourism train to what was lost in the City of Kingston in 1969 when the city’s old post office building was razed to make way for a fast-food franchise.