Imagine a trail that could lead a walker, cyclist, jogger or non-vehicle-driving daydreamer all the way from the tip of Manhattan at Battery Park to the raging waters at Niagara Falls in Buffalo to the State Capital in Albany to the Canadian border and beyond. Well, it’s about to happen — a 750-mile continuous trail that will touch all of these spots, including Highland, New Paltz, Rosendale, Gardiner, Kingston and everywhere in between. It’s called The Empire State Trail and a small but pivotal section of it was just officially opened along the busy vehicular corridor of Route 299 in Highland by South Street across from Lowe’s. This newly constructed 1.25-mile path extends from the existing Hudson Valley Rail Trail at Old New Paltz Road to South Street with wooden hued guard rails and a twelve-foot-wide paved path that will be plowed during the winter for pedestrian use.
“By Fall of 2020 you will be able to go from Battery Park with the Freedom Tower behind you and a view of the Statue of Liberty, all the way to the iconic Hudson Valley and up to Canada,” said Andy Beers, the Director of the Empire State Trail who was at the grand opening of the trail this past Friday morning along with Ulster County Executive Mike Hein, Highland Supervisor Paul Hansut, Village of New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers, Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association President Peter Bellizi, UlsterCounty legislators Herb Litts and Hector Rodriguez, as well as plethora of other local representatives. Beers explained that this portion of the trail, (from the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Rail Trail to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail off of Huguenot Street in New Paltz) is way ahead of schedule because “of the tenacity of County Executive Mike Hein. He has consistently and emphatically requested that the project be accelerated before the snow flies and look,” he said gazing at the new 12-foot-wide paved trail, “it is happening.”
As one drives west from South Street in Highland towards New Paltz, they cannot help but see the work being done to create the 1.6-mile non-motorized trail on the south side of Route 299 that will continue the connection from the Hudson Valley Rail Trail all the way to North Putt Corners Road in New Paltz. What’s more amazing than the speed at which these connector trails are being constructed is the cooperation between local, county, state and not-for-profit environmental leaders. “This helps to give us greater connections to other communities like New Paltz and brings more people into the great Town of Highland,” said Hansut. “It encourages people to get out of their cars and walk and bike and be healthy and fit and environmentally conscious. But you know what?” he said. “It’s easy to be an elected official and get up here and talk at a grand opening. It’s much more difficult to be the visionary. The ones who saw this tract of old, abandoned rail trail and saw what it could become (a public linear park,)” he said gesturing to former town supervisor of Lloyd Ray Costantino and his wife Claire Costantino, who were the pioneers behind the acquisition and development of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail more than a decade ago. Hansut called the Costantino’s up to the podium, along with volunteer members of the rail trail, county legislator Litts and thanked them for the work they had done to even be able to have a trail that could connect to the Walkway Over the Hudson and the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail.
Hein also noted that when he first learned about the Empire State Trail, he thought it was a great idea, except that they wanted to take it from New York City to the east side of the Hudson River. “That sounded wonderful, except guess what? My district is on the west side of the river and why would you want to miss out on the views of the Shawangunk Mountains, the beauty of the Catskills?” Through the tenacity he is known for and his belief in eco-tourism and the benefits of non-motorized transportation and trail systems, Hein, with the help of friends all over the State, was able to convince the governor’s office to take the Empire State Trail and run it from the Walkway Over the Hudson through Highland, along Route 299, into the Town of New Paltz, down Henry W. Dubois Drive onto Mulberry Street and connect it with the Wallkill Valley Rail trail, which runs north towards Kingston and south towards Gardiner and now West to the foothills of the Shawangunk Mountains.
This segment of the trail was a $2 million project that received 80 percent of its funding from a federal transportation grant and $50,000 through a grant awarded by the late Assemblyman Frank Skartados, whom Hansut also thanked in his speech before the ribbon was cut.
Equally as unimaginable as the 750-mile non-motorized trail being linked together has been the unprecedented cooperation between local, county, state and federal governments, along with their environmental partners. Rich Gottlieb, owner of Rock and Snow in New Paltz; along with Glenn Hoagland, the Executive Director of The Mohonk Preserve; Rafael Diaz of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association; Mikki Meyer of the Town of Lloyd Economic Development Committee; and dozens of cyclists were all on hand to celebrate the success of a plan being put in action and the action moving faster than anyone had anticipated.
“It’s amazing what the DOT can do when they are extremely motivated,” said Hein gesturing west towards the work that was being done to continue the trail towards New Paltz. “We have so much here for people to enjoy that once they come here, they’re never going to leave. This is going to help fuel the quality of life for Ulster County residents as well as contribute enormously to our tourist economy, which is a $570-million part of our economy. We are proving that it is possible to be environmentally friendly, socially conscious, fiscally responsible all at the same time while improving the lives of our citizens. And we are only getting started, added Hein, who admitted to walking the trail before its official opening with Chris White, Ulster County Deputy Director of Planning and Legislator Rodriguez on a brutally hot day while Rodriguez was in flip flops. “Those should be the official footwear of the new trail,” joked White.
Hein went on to announce two new rail trails that will be coming to the area. One of which will “open up eleven miles on the north shore of the Ashokan Reservoir for the first time in 100 years without needing a permit or fee,” he said. And the second one in an “area that touches me the most. It’s a section of Kingston where the population is disadvantaged and where many of the residents don’t own a car. The only way for them to get to the one supermarket in Kingston is travel on foot or bike, except there is no safe way to get there. They are in a food desert and their children’s lives are in jeopardy when they ask them to run to the store to get milk or eggs. So the rail trail we are working on in this area is for much more than exercise, it’s a way to help connect people to be able to get food. And funding for this was just approved.”
After some photos were taken and people caught up with neighbors and friends there were numerous folks who climbed on their bikes to start their day or continue their days via the rail trail. “We just came to celebrate this great grand opening of an alternative route for biking rather than having to be on a dangerous roadway or get in a car to get to work,” said Donna Holmes, who, along with her colleague at the Department of Environmental Conservation office in New Paltz biked to Lloyd to join in the festivities.
What’s been accomplished and what’s next
Prior Phases: From the Walkway to Tony Williams Park — 3.5 miles
Phase 3 (Town of Lloyd) — 0.7 miles
Phase 4 (County of Ulster) — 1.25 miles
Phase 5 (NYSDOT) — 1.6 miles to North Putt Corners Road from South Street in Lloyd
Phase 5 (NYSDOT/New Paltz) — Connection to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail — 1.5 miles
Once completed, the trail from the Walkway Over the Hudson to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail — 8.65 miles
According to Beers, the 750-mile trail will only have two miles where there is roadway without a trail and that would be in New York City. That said, he did answer questions about what the crossing of the trail would look like coming over the highway bridge on Route 299 in New Paltz. “There will be no physical barrier, but there will be visual barriers for a two-way striped eight-foot wide path on the bridge for pedestrians and cyclists,” he said. The Empire Trail director added that there would be “significant improvements to the traffic intersection (of Route 299 and Putt Corners Road) where there would be a pedestrian push-button crossing,” as well as shoulders and striped visual barriers demarking the path as it moves along North Putt Corners Road to Henry W. Dubois Drive down to Mulberry Street and on to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail.