Trail projects and traffic plans converge in New Paltz

(Photo by Lauren Thomas)

It might be considered a good problem to have: there are so many impressive public works trails projects in the pipeline in New Paltz that it’s feeling a bit overwhelming to some residents, who wonder if anyone’s in charge of asking all the right questions to make sure these projects will benefit the community and be integrated one with each other.

Central to the changes is the Empire State Trail (EST), which will pierce the heart of town and is driving the push to connect the final miles of some of the county’s various trails. Closely tied to this are recent and planned improvements to Route 299/Main Street as well as Henry W. Dubois Drive, the latter of which has proposed or approved significant private development at both ends. The easterly terminus of Henry W. at Putt Corners Road is also becoming a critical corridor for emergency services personnel as they travel to Route 299 and through what some consider one of the worst intersections in the county.

Residents worry about the increase of non-motorized traffic and whether local roads have been prepared to handle it. They wonder about how large projects like CVS and Zero Place will impact traffic on the two major east-west roads through town. While no one has asked about it specifically in this way, the overarching question seems to be who’s in charge of it all; is this convergence of traffic plans a symphony being played without a conductor?

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Some of the interest might just be construction fatigue; there’s been a lot of work on roads this past year, and more to come in the spring. Village mayor Tim Rogers echoed the sentiments of town building inspector Stacy Delarede when he observed, “In the midst of construction, people are afraid of outcomes until [the projects are] complete.” Delarede, commenting recently about outcry regarding changes in the ShopRite parking lot uptown, said the amount of construction in recent months ramps up frustration.

A big project translates into disruptions during construction, said the mayor, but he added, “This level is not representative of what we will have” when the dust settles.

Leading the orchestra

Several local officials were introduced to the metaphor of an orchestra playing without a conductor. Village mayor Tim Rogers felt to use it seemed like “fear-mongering” to him. “It’s not an orchestra,” he said, but “many projects,” none of which will change the character of the community because they are being developed “at the margins.”

Town supervisor Neil Bettez, on the other hand, didn’t dismiss it out of hand. “Possibly,” he said, and that’s “why we passed a moratorium” for the gateway area of the town by the Thruway. Even the hint of a major walking trail connection made it apparent that this was a gateway for which the zoning was insufficient. At the same time, projects in the works included CVS (between Putt Corners Road and the Thruway), Ferris Woods (a housing complex at the end of Brouck Ferris Road) and Wildberry Lodge off Paradies Lane and adjacent to the Thruway. Suggestions to amend zoning by reducing curb cuts and connecting parking lots behind stores have been floating around for more than a decade, and the convergence of all these events made it seem like it was past time to act.

Regarding the Empire State Trail, Bettez said the key to a satisfying project is coordinating with many stakeholders: state, village and county officials, as well as representatives from Hudson River Greenway and Open Space Institute. One test of how well that coordination pays off will be how well integrated the signs for the various attractions are in the end. The effort is worth it, he believes, as the work is bringing “a lot of trail improvements for which we don’t have to pay.”

County executive Mike Hein laughed when he heard the comparison with a symphony orchestra. While he wouldn’t say that he himself has picked up that baton, he notes with pride the parts played using county dollars to transform the walking experience in New Paltz. The rebuilt Carmine Liberta Bridge, which arguably made the River-to-Ridge trail feasible, sits next to an overlook which Hein calls “the first waterfront in New Paltz since probably the 1600s.” Wider shoulders on county roads through the flats should make bicycling there safer, and with the trail connections — dreamed of for decades and planned before the EST was ever publicly proposed — it will be feasible to reach Metro North without using a car. Wider roadways also now make walking to the high school theoretically safer.

An interconnected trail system is one of those ideas that “they oughta do,” Hein said, adding, “My wife reminds me I am the ‘they’ who oughta do this.” He is quick to point out that “there is plenty of credit to go around,” but also that he is “proud for the reputation of getting important things done” that he has acquired. “I’m proud of the leadership and the results,” he said.

Gina Disarro, who handles media relations for region 8 of the state Department of Transportation, agreed that it can be “kind of confusing” to follow all the moving pieces, and she was only talking about the Empire State Trail, not the other private and municipal projects in the works. For the trail alone, Disarro thinks the conductor would rightly be someone in the state parks department. Her own department’s purview is just the roadside portions, but that dovetails with planned upgrades to the Putt Corners intersection.

Routing EST through New Paltz a win for tourism

There were hints of a big trail project as early as January, 2016, and by April of that year the Empire State Trail had a name. Recognizing its value to the community, Bettez lobbied to get the project funded in the state budget, and recalls being worried that downstate legislators would quash it as it didn’t benefit their districts directly. Even had it failed on the state level, there were already county plans to connect the Hudson River and Wallkill Valley rail trails, but “it would have taken a lot longer” without the push and purse strings of Governor Cuomo.

“It could have been on the east side of the [Hudson] river entirely,” said Bettez, with its route from Battery Park to Albany utilizing trails in Dutchess County instead of Ulster. However, the Walkway Over the Hudson has been incredibly successful, with 547,722 visitors in 2016 (compared to a record 710,000 in 2013), and including it in Cuomo’s vision of a state-crossing footpath made for a compelling narrative. Users will come over the Walkway, follow the Hudson Valley Rail Trail and extensions into New Paltz, then take the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail all the way to Kingston before using that city’s burgeoning trail system to make their way to the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge and back across the Hudson.

Hein also considers it a win that the trail jumps the river to go through Ulster. “We owe an enormous thank-you for this substantial change,” he said, rerouting this “beautiful concept” which was first proposed to go entirely up the east side of the Hudson. “Those like me believe there’s an incredible opportunity on the west side of the river.”

County work to connect the Hudson and Wallkill Valley rail trails was already in the planning stages, with the last leg intended to be completed in 2020, but “it’s happening now” thanks to Hein’s lobbying as chair of the Ulster County Transportation Council to get that project moved up the priority list.

The trail is being brought together under the purview of the state’s parks department, but construction along state roads is being effected through the transportation department. While 85% of the completed 750-mile trail will be off-road, most miles in the Mid-Hudson Valley will be roadside. In New Paltz, that will include a length along Route 299 where trail users will be protected from automobiles with a concrete barrier, and then bicyclists will head down the hill toward the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail via Henry W. Dubois Drive, with sidewalks on Main Street being the preferred route for walkers (and anyone craving a bite or hankering to shop). According to Bettez, the government money to complete those sidewalks seemed to “come out of nowhere.” There remains only one spot on the north side of Main where there’s no ramps for wheelchairs, and that location — McDonald’s — is presently subject to a Planning Board review which will likely yield that improvement.

Maintaining the EST

According to the mayor, village public works superintendent Bleu Terwilliger did have concerns about signing an agreement to maintain a length of the Empire State Trail, but they were addressed. That agreement is simply to keep the pavement lines repainted, and state workers use a different type of paint that is not compatible with village equipment. No problem, they were told; the painting can be done using whatever materials village DPW employees use as normal.

The town stretch will also have some line-painting to keep up, but highway superintendent Chris Marx has concerns about what will be asked of his budget specifically along the highway stretch. Alongside Route 299, taking care of mowing and snow removal could become more complicated, especially if that length — like the county-built stretch in neighboring Lloyd — gets a split-rail fence along it.

Marx sees the excellent job being done keeping up the newly-finished Lloyd stretch as the standard, but he also sees a very tight budget as a challenge. While a commercial mower might be provided through the Hudson River Greenway, that doesn’t pay for whoever operates it. He said that mowing every other week would be expected, but “it should be more to make it look nice.” If a fence is included, there will be more time using a gas-powered weed wacker to cut back growth around it; pulling weeds by hand might be quieter and less stinky, but is simply too expensive an option.

Then, there’s the question of snow removal. “We don’t have to do it, but do people want that?” Marx wants to know. “If not, and if [the trail]’s not closed, is it an issue if someone falls? If it’s closed, it’s at your own risk.”

Other questions include what obligations there would be to maintain crosswalks and trail signs, as well as whether fixing potholes in the paved trail will fall to town taxpayers to fund. Marx is awaiting more details about what’s being asked, but he’s also not entirely clear who to turn to for those answers, given the many different players involved in this project.

Town gateway zoning stalled

Every step in the process to rezone the stretch of Route 299 from Ohioville past Putt Corners has been dogged by the specter of litigation. The idea of a moratorium was first raised by residents concerned about impacts of the proposed CVS project, and while the supervisor maintains that the Empire State Trail was the major motivator, others have seen it differently. Former Town Council member Jeff Logan regularly asserted at meetings that he believed the moratorium was intended to target that project alone, a concern that Council Member Marty Irwin also seemed to share.

The moratorium has since expired, and the CVS project is again being reviewed by town Planning Board members. No new zoning has been passed, despite the fact that the text of such a law has been written. According to Bettez, there remains a concern that as soon as the law is passed and the zoning changed, a lawsuit brought by the developers of one or more projects now under review will follow. To that end, village resident Michael Zierler — who has served on both local planning boards — was asked in September to offer recommendations as to what additional studies might be needed to clearly show that the mandated “hard look” at environmental impacts has been taken. In theory, with enough evidence of due diligence, the likelihood of a court challenge will fade, or at least such a case might be more readily dismissed.

“Things have changed out there in the real world since the committee for gateway [zoning] finished their work,” Zierler said. It wasn’t entirely clear where the EST might end up and now it is. While he hasn’t finalized what he will say to Town Board members, he believes a transportation analysis that looks at maximum build-out compared to what it may look like in the same area under present zoning would be important to include. In addition, “We need to tie the hopes of the Empire State Trail for better pedestrian mobility in this area, but I’m not sure how the town [officials] will do that.” What he’s sure about is that it will take more than simple traffic counts to demonstrate those envisioned changes.

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Putt Corners a clutch location

Once something of an entertainment district for New Paltz, Putt Corners is now a very busy intersection around which there is more development planned. Right near this crossroads is the Hampton Inn and a Freihofer’s distribution center. Putt Corners Road is also an important emergency-services corridor: both town police and volunteer rescue squad headquarters are on this road, as well as village fire station #2, which is slated to become the main firehouse with construction to begin in the spring.

Not only has a project which includes a drug store and burger place on one corner been under review by town Planning Board members for several years, state transportation officials have wanted to make improvements to pedestrian crossings for far longer. To make those walk signals safe, the dedicated right-turn “slip lane” from westbound Route 299 onto North Putt Corners Road will be replaced with a turn controlled by a traffic signal.

Mayor Rogers was a member of the town Planning Board when the so-called CVS/Five Guys project was first proposed. His recollection is that he and his colleagues at the time were “loosely aware” of the plans to connect local rail trails, but it wasn’t clear at the time precisely how the trail would be routed through this intersection. “I wonder if they considered that when they did not require an EIS,” he said, referring to the environmental impact statement which would have been triggered by a positive declaration of environmental significance pursuant with state environmental review laws. “Should it now be required, considering the magnitude?”

Disarro, the DOT representative, did confirm that state-level plans call for pedestrian signals there. It’s been said that this is why the dedicated right-turn lane used by many residents to bypass Main Street will be replaced with a turn that’s beholden to a red light. Although Disarro asked for questions about those plans to be submitted in writing, she did not respond by press time.

Much ado about Henry

Work has only just begun along Henry W. Dubois Drive to make it the preferred route for bicyclists just passing through town. Walkers along the Empire State Trail will be directed down the sidewalk of Main Street into the downtown area, but cyclists will be directed to take this parallel route. According to Bill Dubois, it was once called Fulton Road, but was renamed in his father’s honor in the late 1970s when it was extended to make it into a bypass. Henry “was on the village board, or mayor, for 37 years,” the younger Dubois said; he retired in 1975, the same year his son Bill first became fire chief. The many stop signs were put in at that time to calm traffic, and a monument was erected by members of the Paltz Club to commemorate the naming. That monument was once at the corner of North Putt Corners Road, but has since been relocated to the other side of the 9/11 memorial on that corner.

The current fire chief, Cory Wirthmann, explained that upgrading the firehouse adjacent to those memorials to station #1 involved some careful thought about traffic control. Installing a light to stop all traffic long enough to allow trucks to exit “will not happen,” he said, because “it would have destroyed traffic” on two roads. Another idea which was floated would have given firefighters — and presumably other first responders — the ability to turn the light at Putt Corners and Route 299 red in all directions to facilitate emergency traffic. However, the lights along much of Main Street are carefully timed, and each use of that power would mean a number of light cycles out of sync, snarling traffic for everyone else. In the end, Wirthmann said it was decided that relying on lights and sirens would be the least disruptive strategy.

It would help if drivers knew how to react to those lights and sirens, however: Wirthmann said that in intersections, it’s best just to stop the car and allow the truck driver to figure out how to navigate. Moving to the left is bad because it’s not expected. Just slowing down and driving in the shoulder is also a problem, because it forces the fire engine driver to speed up to pass that vehicle. In short, just stop the car and trust the professionals. “You really have to be a defensive driver” to use emergency lights safely, the chief said.

Bicycle lanes which will be incorporated into the Empire State Trail have been painted along much of that street, except for a very narrow section in the middle where that’s not practical. Signage for the trail will be installed, and there’s also two sidewalk projects at different stages. As part of a federal grant awarded before Mayor Rogers even took office, sidewalks are slated to be built on several corners of this through-street. Town officials are now seeking funding to build sidewalks alongside the bike lanes which have been painted.

The town sidewalk bid is a rehash of a failed grant application for transportation alternatives from 2014. With the Empire State Trail coming through, it could be easier this time, but Bettez isn’t counting the money yet. What’s stronger in this application is that it’s been established that no rights-of-way would need be acquired to undertake the road widening necessary to run a sidewalk along the north side of the street, together with the two five-foot bike paths with three-foot buffers. In some areas, there still may prove not to be room for a sidewalk and bike path due to existing rock formations, but if awarded, this grant would make it safer for those pedestrians who are already using the road regardless.

One concern which has been raised is whether or not putting in both bike lanes and sidewalks is just too much. “I don’t think they’re redundant,” said Rogers. “People shouldn’t ride bicycles on sidewalks.” That is in fact illegal, although Joseph Snyder, police chief of the town force, has said that tickets are rarely issued to bicyclists who do this, if at all.

Rogers pointed out that, while bicyclists and walkers share space along the River-to-Ridge and Wallkill Valley Rail trails, “they’re not also sharing with cars,” as bicyclists must along Henry W. There’s such a thing as too much sharing on one roadway, and the mayor believes bicyclists should not be asked to share with pedestrians and automobile drivers at the same time.

Another question nearby residents have wondered about is why this relatively narrow street would have been selected for this important trail at all. According to Bettez, the route simply followed what’s been proposed by county officials to connect the two local rail trails for at least a decade. An alternative which has been floated would route the trail down to Jansen Road and connect with the rail trail farther south, but Bettez thinks the village route is the superior one. That’s because the walking trail doesn’t just serve passersby, but community residents seeking to go hither and yon sans car. “It gives a lot people access to the entire trail system, the pool, community center, and downtown,” precisely because it runs through a densely-populated part of town.

Moreover, safety concerns are actually part of the reason for sidewalks and bike paths through this neighborhood. Residents raise the specter of walkers getting hit by cars, but Bettez points out, “People get hit all the time. There are different opinions, but roads are not designed just for cars. Originally, they were for horses. Everyone has the right to travel on them,” and thus efforts to make them safe for all existing forms of traffic should have a high priority, he believes.

That might not be enough to appease residents of the street, some of whom say they regularly see bicyclists blowing through stop signs and expect that this will only become a bigger problem with more riders on the Empire State Trail. Given the long downhill run, it’s not unreasonable to presume some of these scofflaws even break the speed limit while heading west. According to Lieutenant Robert Lucchesi of the town police force, there’s no easy way to break out which traffic citations are written for drivers of bicycles as opposed to motorized vehicles, but anecdotally he doesn’t believe ticketing bicyclists is very common.

Zierler has a lot of knowledge about this particular corridor. He shepherded the Zero Place project approval through that board, while at the same time has raised numerous questions about the impacts of the CVS project near the other end of that street. “I argued at the town Planning Board all along that [members] should look more at the traffic impacts to Henry W. Dubois Drive and surrounding neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s still important, and with the Empire State Trail, more so.”

There was talk about routing the trail through the Trans-Hudson Management-owned property where the CVS is proposed, but that’s no longer being discussed. The design proposal wasn’t one which engaged trail users or provided amenities; apparently simply slipping behind the drug store wasn’t much of a selling point to trail designers.

With Zero Place and an approved project just across Mulberry Street yet to be built, and a Stewart’s proposed right at the corner of Henry W., Zierler thinks it’s time to “more fully address” improving that North Chestnut Street intersection with state transportation officials. “I’m not sure if it was either the trail or a turning lane, or both, but I know no clear decision has been made on that,” he said. What is clear is that more sidewalks and bicycle lanes are part of the projects already approved at that end of the bypass.

With all the new traffic challenges, is a traffic light needed at the east end of Henry W. Dubois Drive? “It has never been mentioned in any plan I have seen,” Bettez said, but he’d be skeptical if it was. That’s because research done indicates that traffic safety can be increased by using stop signs instead of lights, perhaps because it forces drivers to pay closer attention.

World-class improvement

On the western end of town, trail users will be able to turn north and follow the Empire State Trail toward Kingston, or continue across the new Carmine Liberta Bridge to pick up the River-to-Ridge trail which winds through the flats and into the foothills of the Mohonk Preserve. Mayor Rogers calls this “truly amazing” trail a “world-class improvement” for walkers and hikers. “Where else can you go for such a scenic walk, for free?” he asked. The River-to-Ridge, a project created under the auspices of the Open Space Institute, begins at the west side of the bridge and ends 4.9 miles later at Pine Road. A loop to extend that trail onto Mohonk Preserve property is now being constructed, and will open a portion of the Preserve to visitors without requiring an admission fee.

The bridge was once where the sidewalk ends, but now is the connection to a trail already getting frequent use even before the other connections are built. Drivers along Springtown Road are already becoming aware of the new crosswalk; it’s likely they’ll be stopping for trail users more and more often. Bettez, the town supervisor, thinks the River-to-Ridge trail helped bolster the argument for connecting the Empire State Trail through Ulster County.

Having a new trail through the flats and foothills resulted in improvements to parking at the village boat landing on Springtown Road, but it also might impact other parking plans. Rogers wants to make the lot by the sewage treatment plant off Huguenot Street a bit more welcoming, by moving piles of gravel and other materials, adding lighting, and repainting the stripes to allow for considerably more cars. “We could triple the amount of spaces without adding to the impervious surface,” he said. It’s slightly off the beaten path, a few minutes’ walk from the bridge and downtown, but it’s also one of the few remaining village lots which is still free to use.

The mayor lobbied for that lot to be the one designated for EST parking, but instead state parks officials have decided to further improve the Sojourner Truth Park lot to accommodate that need.

This, too, shall pass

Worries aplenty are rising as to how all these many pieces will fit together, but local elected officials seem confident that even without a particular person or agency in charge, they’ve got it under control. Hein and Bettez are keeping an eye on the moving pieces, and doing what they can to get the projects done in a way that will appear seamless once it’s all complete. Rogers largely dismisses local concerns as overblown, perhaps because he’s in the thick of it and recognizes that many of the questions raised will be addressed or are based on misinformation in the first place.

There will be more seeming chaos, and chaos means change. More visitors may well come to New Paltz, but leave their cars at home. More residents might do the same, and take advantage of other ways to run errands and enjoy the great outdoors. If the worst comes to pass, and nothing but more congestion and safety issues are the result, what’s certain is that the people of New Paltz will not remain silent. On the other hand, it being New Paltz, they likely also will not necessarily agree on if the changes made things better or worse after all.

There are 2 comments

  1. Tracy

    Man, people overreact to such simple things in this town.
    IT ISN’T THAT BIG OF A DEAL.
    THESE IMPROVEMENTS WILL IMPROVE IT ALL – JUST CALM DOWN!

  2. Harried Driver

    Why pedestrians are not walking against the traffic on Henry W. I’ll never know. Most of them walk with the traffic, dangerous as all hell. Don’t they teach that in grade school anymore, along with “Stop, Look and Listen” at railroad crossings or “take the ear buds out and get off your skateboard” when you emerge from behind “STOP” signs while crossing an intersection? Sakes alive.

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