Another 1.3 miles of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, stretching from Tony Williams Park to Route 299, have been completed, paved and opened to the public. Known as Phase 3, this section required major excavation, road closures and engineering prowess to design and implement a large, corrugated, sunlit tunnel that allows rail trail users to travel from Tony Williams Park underneath South Riverside Road and continue northwest towards Route 299, where the trail, thus far, continues to South Street across from Lowe’s. While the work began in the cold, rainy month of March, it finished just in time for a sunlit, nothing-but-blue-skies ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 8.
Highlighting the Phase 3 efforts were several large concrete piers that once held the original steel railroad bridge. Peter Bellizzi, the president of the organization that manages the trail (which is now composed of 5.5 miles of trail from the Walkway Over the Hudson State Park to Route 299), said that the piers were “scattered around — just ugly hunks of industrial waste” from when Ulster County foreclosed on the abandoned railroad tracks and got rid of the old bridge. Hauled and placed directly behind the basketball courts by Tony Williams Park, facing Illinois Mountain with old railroad crossing and rail trail signs on them, they look like regal, historic relics, placed almost like sculptures that hark back to the golden age of railroads.
Ulster County executive Mike Hein noted that, in his estimation, “This could be one of the busiest sections of rail trail in the Hudson Valley, with its access to the Walkway Over the Hudson and soon its connection to New Paltz and the River-to-Ridge Trail.” He added that, with the Metro North connection from New York City and the creation of the 750-mile Empire Trail, which will take non-motorized foot and pedaling traffic from Battery Park all the way to Albany, Buffalo and Canada, “Highland will get to experience the wonderful aspects of the 22 million people in New York City that are part of our $587 million tourist economy, who come here to visit and enjoy the beauty of your town and then go back home,” he said with a laugh. “But seriously, it’s infrastructure like this that allows us to experience economic growth, enjoy the benefits of that growth and at the same time help the most vulnerable people in our community without having to raise taxes.”
Phase 3 cost approximately $1.5 million and was primarily funded by the New York State Department of Transportation with an 80/20 percent matching grant. The town’s portion of the 20 percent was offset in part through a $100,000 grant secured by Scenic Hudson, as well as in-kind services and various funds from the County Legislature.
Lloyd Town Supervisor Paul Hansut talked about how “This project was born of those partnerships,” and pointed to Jeff Anzevino of Scenic Hudson and the late Frank Skartados, who helped secure funds from New York State for this project. “Jeff rides to work on this rail trail every day, in the rain, the sleet, the heat, the cold, and he takes phenomenal pictures of the tugboats on the river and so much of the beauty along this trail,” said Hansut, encouraging people to seek Anzevino’s pictures out on social media.
Hansut thanked everyone involved, including his confidential secretary, Kate Jonietz, who “went out for coffee during a meeting and when she came back, she discovered that she was the project manager for this project!” In fact, the New York State Department of Transportation requires that a full-time employee of the town be named as a project manager when its funds are being utilized. “Paul jokes about it, but that’s kind of how it happened,” Jonietz said. Hansut praised her “boundless energy and enthusiasm and attention to every detail” as project manager.
Turns out that Jonietz was the woman for that job, as she grew up the daughter of a contractor and “worked for 16 years as a land surveyor, so I know how to read plans and understand elevations,” she said. The biggest challenge, according to Jonietz and project engineer Dan Rourke of Barton & Loguidice, surrounded the creation of the tunnel and a sharp bend in the trail. “We also had to do a lot of decking work on the Black Creek crossing, and excavation work by South Riverside Road,” she said.
Dubbing former town supervisor Ray Costantino and his wife Claire the “Ma and Pa” of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, Hansut said that there are “no plaques, no monuments” to thank them for their vision to leverage funding to purchase the abandoned rail trail and turn it into a public park back in the 1990s, “but our deep and sincere gratitude from the bottom of our hearts for all that you have done to get us here today.”
Costantino remembered some of the pushback that they received when they wanted to purchase the old railroad bed and turn it into a linear park. “People didn’t understand it. If it didn’t have to do with baseball or football, then what was it for?” he recalled with a laugh. He thanked Ethan Jackman, a Lloyd resident and businessman who “was the lucky low bidder on a 1943 caboose in Ithaca and ended up donating it to the rail trail, which we now use as a museum along the trail,” said Costantino.
“Before long, this trail will be the ‘new normal,’” said Hein. “People won’t even remember when it wasn’t here.”
Jonietz talked about all of the people she met while working on the project and asking them their opinions on the best places for benches to be placed and what type of plantings they wanted to see, saying that she could not “believe how many people ride from Hopewell Junction to the Highland rail trail and back — not just once a week, but several times a week! I got to know so many people who walk or ride this trail almost every day, both locally and from other communities, and they just love the view of Illinois Mountain and the park, which is such a gem.” Jonietz is working closely with Bellizzi to create landscaping and tree-plantings that will enhance the new trail and its entrance at Tony Williams Park.
It truly was a community effort, as Bellizzi went out of his way to talk about Highland High School senior Casey Rosen, whose Eagle Scout project was the design, engineering, fundraising and construction of the now-completed footbridge for the rail trail to get from the Caboose down to the Highland Landing Park along the river. “That project was 108 pages long, as he had every nut and bolt accounted for, as well as engineering it for a 100-year flood!” said Bellizzi, who noted that the trail is slated for completion in the spring of 2019.