Ulster County expects to receive bids by April 7 for repair of three washouts along the county-owned railroad tracks in the Boiceville area, said Chris White, deputy director of the county planning board. Meanwhile, Rail Explorers, the rail bike company that has contracted to run tours along the Phoenicia-to-Boiceville tracks this summer, is considering alternate routes in response to concerns from residents along Cold Brook Road, originally intended as the last leg of the tours.
The repairs and the bike tours, along with the Ashokan Rail Trail, now in the design stage, and the established Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) excursions in Kingston, are all part of the county’s compromise plan for managing the old Ulster & Delaware Railroad corridor. Both train lovers and trail enthusiasts got some of what they wanted, but now fresh conflicts have arisen.
Members of some of the 39 households on Cold Brook Road (on the south side of Route 28, not to be confused with the road of the same name that runs off of Wittenberg Road in Woodstock), having researched Rail Explorers’ previous operation in the Adirondacks, fear the bikes will be loud and will disrupt the neighbors’ lives by passing by several times a day, 100 days a year. Homeowner Christina Himberger pointed out that name “rail bike” brings to mind rubber tires, but in fact, the pedal wagons have metal wheels that “make a lot of noise, similar to a train, when rolling over the rails.” She feels that Rail Explorers’ plans should be considered separately from the Ashokan Rail Trail. Although White, speaking at an informational meeting at the Olive Library in March, appeared to imply that the two endeavors were interrelated, Himberger sees Rail Explorers as “a whole different project from the walking and biking trail. This is a highly commercial operation. The noise of 300 people a day going through a quiet residential neighborhood — that’s totally incompatible.”
Neighbors have articulated concerns to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) that the noise may disturb the eagles currently making a comeback in the region of the nearby Ashokan Reservoir. When asked about the eagles, Wendy Rosenbach of DEC commented, “DEC is aware eagles use this corridor, but is unaware of any nests or roosting in this area. DEC encourages the public to report any nests they observe so DEC can follow up and verify a new location if needed.”
Residents also met with Kathy Nolan of Catskill Riverkeeper and Kevin Smith of the Woodstock Land Conservancy, environmental groups that advocated for the rail trail when the county was debating how to use the rail corridor. In a joint statement, Nolan and Smith expressed confidence that the county is conscientiously “investigating potential solutions, a process that is going to take some time…We fully support the County’s efforts to restore and preserve the entire 38.6-mile corridor for the highest and best combination of uses.”
Some FEMA reimbursement available for track repairs
White said the Rail Explorers project is far from ready to be launched, and plenty of time remains to study options to mitigate the neighbors’ concerns. The first step in preparing for use of the tracks is fixing the three washout areas along Cold Brook Road.
The largest of the three projects is eligible for reimbursement by FEMA because the damage resulted from Hurricane Irene in 2011. It is the most northerly of the locations, near the Cold Brook Road dead end. The smaller sections, which will be funded by the county, are not subject to FEMA money because they represent erosion that took place over many years. White attributed the damage at one location to “prolonged lack of maintenance, drainage culverts not cleared, and ditch lines not cleared out. There’s a 25-foot-wide gap that left the tracks hanging in the air. We’re trying to stabilize and fix it so it doesn’t get worse.” Engineers have estimated the total cost for the three repairs at $300,000 to $600,000, with 80 to 90 percent of that amount to come from FEMA.
Rail Explorers had planned to start its tours at the railway station in Phoenicia, continue through Mount Tremper and across Route 28, then proceed to Boiceville, with riders disembarking either on Cold Brook Road or on Route 28A, where a large bus would pick them up and return them to Phoenicia. The Town of Olive, concerned about traffic and sanitation issues, has indicated that the county might have to provide a site plan and apply for a permit for the terminus.
According to White, the owners of Rail Explorers, Alex Catchpoole and Mary Joy Lu, are considering revising the tour route so the rail bikes will halt before reaching the Cold Brook Road homes, reverse direction, and return to Phoenicia along the rails instead of by bus, which would alleviate the Town of Olive’s concerns. The tours could also begin at Mount Tremper, go to Phoenicia, and come back again. However, the ride is meant to be accessible to customers of all ages and fitness levels. Therefore, Lu and Catchpoole have to examine different scenarios to see whether the slight uphill grade heading to Phoenicia would make the trip impossible for less capable riders. The owners and county personnel have not yet been able to inspect the tracks due to the recent snowstorm, followed by the launch of another Rail Explorers venture in Rhode Island the weekend of April 1.
“We’ve asked the Town of Olive and the neighbors to be patient,” said White. Rail Explorers’ tours are scheduled to begin in August or September.