The Ulster County Legislature approved a five-year contract with the Rail Explorers rail-bike company for the western end of the county-owned Ulster & Delaware rail corridor despite some objections over noise, safety and privacy.
The rail bikes run about 4.2 miles between a track washout along the Esopus Creek at milepost 23.3 and the Empire State Railway Museum in Phoenicia at milepost 27.5, both within the Town of Shandaken.
The motion to refer back to committee failed 9-13 with legislators Peter Criswell, Gina Hansut, Chris Hewitt, Joseph Maloney, Laura Petit, Kevin Roberts, Megan Sperry, Eric Stewart and John Gavaris in the minority.
The contract was approved 20-2 at the November 14 legislative meeting, with Maloney and Petit the only votes against it. Minority leader Ken Ronk was absent.
Also approved 23-0 as part of the consent agenda was a new five-year contract with Catskill Mountain Railroad to operate its tourist trains on the eastern segment approximately 4.5 miles between Kingston Plaza and Route 28A. Based on environmental concerns, the new contract includes a requirement for emissions monitoring because the older locomotives used do not meet modern air quality standards.
Legislator Joseph Maloney of Saugerties, who failed to get enough support to send the Rail Explorer matter back to committee for further review, believes many issues were addressed in the new contract, including better oversight, “but there were some really reasonable things that the residents were asking for over there. A thousand more feet of the rubber, which would have brought the sound [mitigation] to the rest of these houses.”
Rubber was affixed to a section of tracks to deaden sound, but not through the entire neighborhood.
Maloney also noted that while nothing is to operate after sunset, the runs take more than two hours, meaning the last run would end after dark.
But legislator Kathy Nolan, who represents Denning, Hardenburgh, Olive and Shandaken and lives near the tracks, said it was a small number of people who were complaining.
“I’m very sympathetic to the people who are troubled by the operation of this business. That the number of people that are troubled by it seems to me to be fairly small, but they are troubled. And the county has made really good faith efforts to address their concerns, going back to the first permit given to this business,” Nolan said. “It has been hard for me, because I care about those people who have this situation, because what I see is that the people who come are reporting their own concerns, but they’re also claiming that there are concerns for other people along the corridor like this additional 1000 feet of dampening of the sound.”
“I do think that the businesses in the area are very supportive of having this business run,” Nolan continued. “And I think this is a fair compromise already that we’ve achieved. So I hope that we just go ahead and pass this and see how the company does.”
Mount Tremper resident Molly Holm told the legislature that not enough has been done to satisfy the neighbors. “While Rex [Rail Explorers] finally did adjust the noise of the bikes by coating a substance on the tracks, it was done for only half the neighborhood. We were told they would complete it if they got a new contract, which is where we are today,” Holm said. “In this contract, our repeated pleas for modifying the schedule were ignored by the county. Instead, they introduced a new section giving permission for Rex to build some kind of pilot green tunnel over the tracks with no details of the size or scope..
The county knows the objectors never wanted that, Helm alleged. “The last time they did any kind of visual screening was back in 2019,” she said. “The owners proposed a flower tunnel instead of a fence or trees. We said no, that wouldn’t work here. It wouldn’t be adequate for privacy. It’s not fitting for the neighborhood or the tracks.”