While the Ulster County Legislature approved spending around $3.6 million to blacktop nearly two miles of the Kingston Rail Trail last week, the discussion also covered the ecological impact of the project as well as whether that money could be better spent on housing.
The stretch of the Kingston Rail Trail set to become paved runs from Washington Avenue to Route 209 in Hurley and is the northernmost part of the 27-mile O&W Rail Trail, which ends in Ellenville. The O&W Rail Trail website identifies the Kingston Rail Trail as a “rough section,” which supporters of the paving project were hoping to see remedied.
During a meeting of the Legislature held on Tuesday, February 14, Ralph Durham, O&W treasurer and a Hurley representative on the trail’s coalition, spoke about the importance of rail trails as a means of connecting previously disconnected communities.
“Ultimately all of these shared use community trails will benefit everyone’s health and wellness while they are enjoying the incredible beauty of our region,” he said. “The O&W Coalition strongly supports the resolutions before the legislature for the construction of the Kingston Rail Trail project.”
John Grossbohlin, a Kingston representative on the coalition and chairman of the city’s Complete Street Advisory Council echoed the sentiment, saying that a 1,200-mile bicycle trip last summer using every rail and canal way trail he could find demonstrated the importance of finding connections along the O&W Rail Trail.
“This is not just a recreational trail here, this is a transportation corridor,” Grossbohlin said. “(The Kingston Rail Trail) has had a gap for decades. A lot of people would not use it because it was in terrible condition and they didn’t feel safe there. This is a tremendous opportunity to improve non-motorized transportation opportunities and transportation equity to serve those folks that are living in the workforce housing at Stony Run and elsewhere in Kingston and Ulster County.”
Not all the public speakers supported the blacktop project, even those who enjoy rail trails.
“Right now in Ulster County we have a housing crisis,” said Rachel Gans, a resident of Bloomington. “There’s hundreds and hundreds of people without homes in Ulster County…I’ve walked the trails all my life, and it’s very important to me. But when we have so many unhoused people how can we consider putting millions into trails?”
Some legislators agreed.
“Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned to the ground,” said Joseph Maloney (D-Saugerties). “We’re here on the six floor talking about another freaking walking trail while our sidewalks fall apart, where kids are living in the street and leaving their homes and all this other nonsense…It’s very close to bubbling over.”
Laura Petit (D-Esopus) suggested that the money being spent on paving the Kingston Rail Trail would be better used to help solve the county’s housing crisis.
“We have been investing millions in our trails, and I think it’s great for tourism,” Petit said, adding that the current solution of moving unhoused families from dismal motel room to motel room isn’t working, particularly for children. “There are people that are sleeping outside of DSS waiting for emergency housing. We have them moved from emergency housing every 21-to-25 days. These are disgusting, they have bedbugs they roaches.”
Christopher Hewitt (D-Kerhonkson) said the paving project was part of a larger issue about how the county — and the country — prioritizes needs.
“The problem with paving America is that before too long it becomes a concrete jungle devoid of trees,” Hewitt said. “Walkability and bike safety is taking a backseat because of the domination of the automobile.”
Hewitt said prioritizing the automobile over people was “all mixed up.”
“We’re willing to spend over $3 million tonight on a short stretch of rail trail,” Hewitt said. “But it was groundbreaking when we recently set aside $5 million for a food security plan for the county…I wonder how many people will go hungry or without a house while these roads are paved.”
But some legislators said the two issues weren’t necessarily connected, including Deputy Majority Leader Abe Uchitelle (D-City of Kingston).
“We are speaking about allocating money away from this capital investment in our trails to allocate it for housing,” Uchitelle said. “We have a significant excess fund balance, and that’s why last year I asked for $20 million from that fund balance to be allocated towards housing, and that has been tied up in a variety of processes and getting the right governance in place so we can spend that money and get the right programs. It’s not as though allocating the money from one project to another is going to get it done but I am loving that I’m hearing a strong voice coalescing for housing.”
Kathy Nolan (D-Denning/Hardenburgh/Olive/Shandaken) said improving the Kingston Rail Trail will benefit everyone.
“I don’t think these projects stand in opposition to each other at all,” Nolan said. “We’re trying to improve services across-the-board for residents, especially our residents that may be low income and not have access to a motorized vehicle. There is transportation equity…that is served by connecting a transportation hub in the city out to a recreational area and a housing for workers that are trying to travel between these towns and cities.”
Nolan added that improving rail trails will help achieve climate goals by reducing the amount of transportation on the roads.
“There’s a lot of really good things that we should be doing and I think we have the capacity to work on them all at once,” Nolan said.
The resolution authorizing the Kingston Rail Trail project passed 20-3, with Hewitt, Maloney and Petit dissenting.