Of the 41 people who came forward to deliver comments or ask questions after the December 1 Onteora High School presentation regarding the 11.5-mile section of rail trail being designed for the north side of the Ashokan Reservoir, the majority were hikers, cyclists, businesspeople, and members of local environmental organizations, expressing enthusiasm for the rail trail. About a dozen speakers brought up doubts about the project, some asserting a desire to keep the rails in place, although plans call for removal of tracks along most of the rail corridor bordering the reservoir.
About 400 people in all attended the information session and public hearing. Chris White, deputy director of the Ulster County Planning Department and project manager for the Ashokan Rail Trail, led the proceedings with a slide show describing the project. Further explanation was provided by representatives of Barton and Loguidice, the engineering firm that is designing the trail and will be building it, and representatives of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which owns the land around the reservoir and is helping to fund the construction.
The rail trail design is moving forward after years of controversy and negotiation over the long, narrow piece of real estate that is the 38.5-mile Ulster and Delaware rail corridor, owned by Ulster County. In December 2015, the county legislature voted unanimously to adopt the recommendations of studies stating that in order to maximize public benefit, the bulk of the corridor should be made trail-only, as opposed to rail-only or rail-and-trail side by side. Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) continues to operate a tourist line in Kingston, while CMRR’s Phoenicia stretch will be taken over by Rail Explorers, a company that rents out bicycles adapted to ride on rails.
The rail trail will be open dawn to dusk, 365 days a year, without permit or fee — even within DEP property. Unlike most Catskills trails, which meander, traverse, and scale mountains, the relatively straight and level rail trail will be accessible to wheelchairs, strollers, and bicycles, usable for hiking, biking, running, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Motorized vehicles will not be permitted, nor will horses, due to water quality issues.
“Ten years ago,” said White, “DEP said there would be no trails ever” on property surrounding the Ashokan Reservoir, which provides 40 percent of New York City’s drinking water. Thus the rail trail agreement between DEP and Ulster County represents a major departure from the city’s past policy. Residents and visitors will be allowed to traverse a narrow section of the tightly restricted water supply property, taking in views of the reservoir and its surrounding mountains. Ira Stern, Chief of Natural Resources for DEP, attributed the city’s charge of heart to a desire to educate its residents. “A lot of people in New York City don’t know where their water comes from,” he told the audience. “This gives them an opportunity to come up here and connect with their water supply. The importance of water quality can’t be overstated. We have a rich history of multiple uses of water supply land, and we know what uses are compatible. We’ve had good experience with fishing and boating, hiking and deer hunting.”
In addition to furnishing $2.5 million for developing the trail, the DEP will build three trailheads, one in Boiceville at the western end of the reservoir trail, one near Basin Road at the eastern end, and one in the middle, where a decommissioned train station sits in the hamlet of Ashokan, near the reservoir inlet called Jones Cove. Trailheads will include parking, bathrooms, and information kiosks. DEP will also provide connections between the rail trail and the business district in Shokan; a path to the dividing weir bridge, now under renovation, across the middle of the reservoir; and a dedicated biking and walking path along the Five Arches Bridge to link the trail to Boiceville, when the bridge is replaced several years from now.
Design details were explained by engineer Thomas Baird, who said most of the rail trail will be 12 feet wide, with shoulders of three to five feet. In some areas, up to two vertical feet of the trail will be shaved off and the ballast, sharp rock fragments that are already in place as a base for the rails and ties, will be spread across the trail to widen it, thus reducing the need to bring in fresh materials. Ballast will be covered by a crushed rock mixture used effectively on trails at Minnewaska, allowing for drainage.
A collapsed culvert across Butternut Creek, will be replaced with a truss bridge, designed to improve fish habitat by facilitating stream flow, while costing less than a concrete structure, which is not so beneficial to fish. The Boiceville railroad trestle that collapsed in the 2011 storms will be replaced by a steel girder two-span bridge rated for trail use, dump trucks, and emergency vehicles. Baird said the bridge can be adapted to support trains if rail use returns in the future.
His firm’s study showed that implementing rail-with-trail would require extending existing culverts, crossing environmentally sensitive wetlands, and cutting 30 acres of trees. Because steep slopes would be traversed at some locations, large quantities of new fill would have to be imported.
Construction of the rail trail is scheduled to begin in October 2017, with completion by October 2018. The total budget, including state grants, is between $8.5 million and $9 million, including about $3.5 million for the two sub-projects to replace the Butternut Cove crossing and the Boiceville trestle.
‘Ill-advised’ or ‘Wonderful opportunity’?
Former Town of Saugerties supervisor Kelly Myers spoke from the audience, stating that she believed preservation of the rails should be a priority wherever possible. In response to her pointed questions, White said that a State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) would be undertaken to satisfy DEC requirements, and a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review would also be done, in case Federal funds are applied for at some point. The county is in touch with the state’s historic preservation office, which supports re-using the corridor for a trail.
Peter Tassone, who identified himself as a “trail person and rail historian,” said pulling up the rails is “an ill-advised concept. Most of us would be happy to have the trail along with the rails. With this county executive, I’m pretty sure there are political shenanigans. This plan is being shoved down the throats of an unwitting public.”
Cameron Williams of Saugerties, who has seen the engineering studies as part of his work with Woodstock Land Conservancy and Catskill Mountainkeeper, stated that rail-with-trail operations in other places have been built only where there are two sets of parallel tracks, and the Ulster and Delaware is a single-track line. He also wanted to know how hikers would be kept separated from hunters, since hunting is allowed on DEP land. White responded, “We’ve had a conversation with Federated Sportsmen of Ulster County. Most of the hunting in this area is bow hunting. On the Walkill trail, hunters are allowed to use the rail trail to get into the hunting area, but it’s clearly posted that there’s no shooting from or across the trail. It may be that a few days a year, we close for a short period.”
Father John Nelson of Woodstock’s Church-on-the-Mount questioned the impact of the trail on parking and traffic, citing the parking problems created by Internet publicity about the Overlook Mountain trail at the top of Meads Mountain Road. Baird replied that plans have included extensive traffic studies, which determined that trail and commuter traffic are unlikely to intermix. The trailheads will feature parking lots, with 50 spots planned for the Jones Cove lot. White said secondary access points are under consideration, near existing gates. Local users could walk or bike in from the gates, and the county’s bus service along Route 28 can drop people at trailheads.
Joseph Conrad, a cyclist, said, “I work in a couple of area hospitals. I see the effects of a sedentary lifestyle — joint replacements, diabetes. I also see people well into their 70s, 80s, 90s, getting out to exercise. I want to keep riding my bike and utilizing projects like this. I don’t want to go to this magical place and see trains go by.”
Joseph Wolf of Boiceville said, “I’ve biked the Erie Canal, and I do not want to see the rails removed. I want to see trains run while I sit in my backyard. Put the trail on the south side of the reservoir.”
Kevin Smith, chairman of the board of the Woodstock Land Conservancy, pointed out that the south side of the reservoir is distant from communities and from local businesses. “One of the real imperatives DEC and other agencies are looking at is how to support sustainable tourism,” he added. “This trail will be a wonderful opportunity. Eleven point five miles can absorb a lot of people.”
Heather Hirsch, chair of the two-mile Hurley rail trail, said it gets over 30,000 users per year.
Ed Ritz, from the New Paltz area, said he has seen his town’s popular rail trail making “businesses go from quiet to busy on weekends. I work in Poughkeepsie, and I see a parade of people on the rail trail there every day if the weather is nice.” He owns a business near Jones Cove and is anticipating an increase in customers.
Anna Mellinson, a Woodstock parent and a cyclist, remarked, “This is an exciting opportunity for kids, families, and people who like being outdoors.”
The county welcomes further public comments on the project, ideally by February 1, 2017. Remarks may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or Ulster County Planning Department, PO Box 1800, Kingston NY 12402.