Like a well-ordered train schedule, the Ulster County-advertised request for proposals (RFPs) came right on time for the future operation of portions of the old D&H railroad. The legislature in 1991 signed a 25-year lease with Catskill Mountain Railroad to upgrade and operate the 38 miles of track from Kingston Point to Highmount. The lease expires May 31.
It’s been a bumpy ride. The first edition of CMRR featured upland railroad buffs from the Olive-Shandaken area, dedicated to establishing a tourist run from Boiceville to Phoenicia. By dint of backbreaking labor and perseverance, the ol’ boys did a fair to middlin’ job of creating a tourist run in their back yard. The rest of the line they’d get around to when they got around to it. Twenty-five years is a long time, after all.
The stated goal of rehabbing the neglected century-old tracks and rights of way from Kingston to the Delaware County line was, as everybody knew at the time, well nigh impossible without massive infusions of county money or grants.
Down the line, way east, it was a different story. When a Kingston alderman complained about CMRR’s failure to clear brush and debris from its in-town tracks, as required by the county lease, she was pointedly advised where to take her case. “He told me to go shit in my hat!” fumed former alderwoman Mary Ann Parker at a county legislature meeting a few years ago. Thanks to Parker, former railroad president Earl Pardini will forever be known as “The Hat.”
Over the past few years, a new generation of railroad enthusiasts, younger, more Kingston-centric, family-oriented, PR-savvy and expansionist, took over railroad leadership. The upshot was the rehabilitation of tracks from Kingston to Hurley and the aquisition and rehabilitation of vintage rolling stock. Tourist trains running that route have attracted some 30,000 passengers over the last few years, almost all from outside the county.
The county could have gotten behind this train-tourist operation run by volunteers, but County Exec Mike Hein, backed by those who wanted to turn the rails into a rail trail, took a different track. Leave the Boiceville to Phoenicia run for trains, he initially proposed, to rip up the rest of the tracks and create walking, biking and hiking trails. Placing the cart firmly in front of the iron horse, he even penciled in $600,000 in one of his budgets in revenue for scrapped rails. Against that backdrop, Hein moved to evict the railroad, claiming failure to meet the terms of the 1991 lease.
Nobody is exactly sure how much lawyers have collected since. The railroad puts its share of legal expenses at around $300,000. Taxpayers are on the hook for who knows what, but with consultants and in-house lawyers (that, a moving target) it’s probably close to what the railroad spent.
What’s in the RFP?
Late last year, safely past elections, the legislature finally got off its collective butt. A special railroad and trail committee called in both sides and in short order forged a compromise similar to what Hein had previously proposed and ordered RFPs drawn up by March 15. Of some interest, which passed my notice at the time, the legislature did not order the administration to drop the budget-busting lawsuit on a lease that will soon expire.
Some background on RFPs. While the issuing agency in its “request” describes in detail what it requires or desires of a given project, contracts do not necessarily go to the lowest responsible bidder. Very often the “proposals” that come in augment the requests, thus producing a better outcome. Or so goes the theory.
Given its history with the county and the ongoing lawsuit, CMRR, which will submit a proposal, has reason to suspect that the county might word the RFP in such a way as to exclude it. In the world of RFPs, it’s called a “poison pill,” tough to swallow and almost always fatal.
CMRR President Ernie Hunt, successor to the aforementioned “Hat,” is, unlike Pardini, careful with words. “We really haven’t had a chance to go over the RFP in detail,” he said, “but we’re a little concerned about the cost of insurance coverage,” about double what the railroad is now required to carry under its lease with the county.
Insurance could be the least of their worries. Paragraph F of Section 1 of the RFP might give pause. It asks respondents to submit “description of any pending, current or concluded litigation involving the responder, parent company or subcontractor or any of their respective directors, officers or other key personnel involving any railroads owned or operated by responder for the past seven years.” Gulp.
After failing to bully the railroad into submission through lawsuits, county officials could cite the RFP’s litigation clause in rejecting the homegrown railroad.
There is one other possibility, of course. If this crew had the cunning foresight to launch a lawsuit against the railroad two years before its lease expired, it may have already lined up a “responsible” successor among the handful of would-be applicants who have already picked up RFP material.
Deadline for submissions is April 15. We’ll see how many responses the county will get to its RFP.
Meeting of minds
Given that sales-tax negotiations between Ulster County and the City of Kingston are taking place behind closed doors, we get only hints of what’s going on from the public pronouncements. Sniffing smoke signals and sorting chicken guts, I sense the two sides are approaching a compromise, one designed to kick this can down the road.
Kingston Mayor Steve Noble, speaking at a White Eagle Society communion breakfast on Palm Sunday, indicated an “agreement in principle” was near. But he said he wasn’t saying anything specific “until we have it in writing.” Some close to the negotiations predict an agreement could be announced later this week. Given the holidays, it might take a few days longer.
Translation: After Mike Hein’s preemptive strike on city and town revenues, demanding through various surrogates and stooges reductions of between 10 and 33 percent in the current formula for the city and towns, the mayor and others won’t be putting their trust in a warm handshake.
Best bet on the final package: Three years at status quo and the appointment of a county/city study commission to explore shared services and other economies.
Legislator Dave Donaldson, though late to the fracas, produced the best one-liner. “Will they [the legislators] vote for what their town boards want [the status quo], or will they go with the screw-Kingston crowd?” he asked. He was obviously pandering to the towns.
Here and there
Under the heading of slow news cycles, the New York Post picked up an item regarding the New Paltz town planning board’s refusal to require recital of the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of its meetings. Sniffing campaign fodder, Republican congressional hopeful Andrew Heaney waded in on the side of pledges.
I don’t think it much matters, though the words are worth pondering. “With liberty and justice for all” has always been elusive. In any case, it’s a free country. People are free within the law to do or not do what they want.
State Senate candidate Sara Niccoli says “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Cece,” referring to big booster Cecilia Tkaczyk, the former Democratic state senator soundly defeated for re-election in 2014. You bet. The nomination would have been Tkaczyk’s for the asking.