Hein Hopes For Rail Trail From Ashokan Reservoir to Walkway Over the Hudson - Daily Hudson Valley News

Hein Hopes For Rail Trail From Ashokan Reservoir to Walkway Over the Hudson

Jun 17th, 2013 | By | Category: Featured Articles

As part of his ongoing efforts to further enhance the nearly half billion dollar tourism segment of the Ulster County economy and improve the quality of life for area residents, County Executive Mike Hein unveiled an innovative proposal in October 2012 to create a world-class rail trail on major sections of the County-owned Ulster & Delaware (“U&D”) Railroad corridor. The proposed rail trail, which will be open year round for walking, biking and cross-country skiing, will extend from the City of Kingston to the Catskill Park and Ashokan Reservoir and link to other County rail trails and the Walkway over the Hudson.  Since the day County Executive Hein proposed this initiative, his vision has included the integration of a successful and revitalized tourism railroad component that allows the County to benefit from both rail and trail.

The County Executive highlighted his appreciation for the historic contributions of railroads in Ulster County and reiterated his commitment to preserve and promote this unique heritage.  “As a lifelong resident, I truly appreciate Ulster County’s rich railroad history. I remain committed to preserving this legacy through continued rail tourism operations as well as strengthening public awareness of the role railroads have played in shaping our communities,” said County Executive Hein.  “My administration has designed a practical solution that offers the best of both worlds– rail combined with trail– in connecting segments of the U&D corridor.  This plan, which has been endorsed by the Daily Freeman and the Kingston Times, will bring thousands of additional tourists to experience the beauty of Ulster County and discover the history of our railroad past.”

“The tourism railroad and rail trail would connect and complement each other,  making Ulster County an even more attractive place for visitors and residents alike. As always, I look forward to working with local communities and stakeholders to ensure that the underutilized County-owned railroad corridor can be revitalized to benefit all of our residents and promote further expansion of Ulster County’s $420+ million tourism sector,” said County Executive Hein.

Citing the lack of adequate maintenance and serious deterioration of many areas of the publicly-owned U&D corridor, Ulster County today issued a formal legal demand to the for-profit corporation Catskill Mountain Railroad Company, Inc., which currently leases the corridor and is responsible for its maintenance, to come into compliance with the terms of its current lease.

County Attorney Beatrice Havranek stated, “The County has a responsibility to ensure that any organizations leasing land from Ulster County fulfill their legal commitments.  The Catskill Mountain Railroad is a private, for-profit business operating on County-owned property that has been unable or unwilling to live up to many of its legal commitments, and portions of this public asset have been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair.”

“Ulster County has invited the Catskill Mountain Railroad to meet with both the Executive and a bipartisan group of Legislators to identify solutions,” County Attorney Havranek continued.  “Unfortunately, after previously agreeing to meet, the Catskill Mountain Railroad failed to attend and has avoided repeated attempts to schedule needed meetings to resolve the issues at hand, leaving the County with no choice but to issue a demand letter.”

“It is my great hope that today’s action will encourage Catskill Mountain Railroad officials to participate in meaningful discussions and put an end to their current pattern of avoidance,” said County Executive Hein.  “I am confident that the concept my administration proposed will preserve an important portion of the tourism railroad, open up the immense potential associated with connecting the Walkway Over the Hudson to the Ashokan Reservoir, and begin making the Ashokan Reservoir accessible to recreation for everyone.”

“County Executive Hein kept the Legislative body informed through ongoing discussions with both sides of the aisle.  He held meetings with Legislators that were supposed to be attended by Catskill Mountain Railroad representatives, but they refused to attend or respond to additional meeting requests,” said Ulster County Legislator and former Railroad Advisory Board Member Wayne Harris.

Ulster County Legislator Hector Rodriguez stated, “This is not about historic railroad preservation because the key area where ridership occurs will be preserved and is not in question.  This issue is instead about a for-profit organization that continually has failed to follow through on its promises to the people of Ulster County.  I am troubled that multiple members of the Catskill Mountain Railroad Board do not live in Ulster County, including the new President, even though the issue at hand is pivotal to the future of Ulster County’s economy.”

In 1991, Ulster County entered into a 25-year lease with the Catskill Mountain Railroad (“CMRR”), a for-profit company, with the stated goal of building a major regional tourism attraction along the former U&D corridor.  In return for significantly below-market rent (which has averaged less than $2,000 per year and is currently approximately $4,500 annually), among other provisions, the agreement called for the Catskill Mountain Railroad to upgrade one mile of the track each year.  Catskill Mountain Railroad failed to upgrade one mile each year, and it has also not maintained the railroad line as required in its lease.  It currently operates on a small fraction of the 38-mile corridor.  Segments of the rail line are now marked by significant washouts, mature trees growing through the tracks, failing structures and destroyed bridges, which represent millions of dollars in damages.   After 22 years, it is clear that CMRR has not met its lease obligations and remains unable to deliver the promised economic development and tourism benefits that initially were used to justify the long-term lease and greatly reduced rent for this increasingly valuable publicly-owned asset.

In response to proposals for the County to build “rail alongside trail,” it is important to note that every objective evaluation and study of the feasibility of constructing trail alongside the existing rail on the single-track U&D railroad corridor has concluded that it would be cost-prohibitive and impractical to construct rail alongside trail in most sections of the corridor.  Further, the $2 million in approved New York State grants are for development of trail only and cannot be used for railroad construction.  The feasibility studies are posted at the County website.

Regarding pending federal (FEMA) funding for flood damages, the County has requested and received time extensions on all pending projects in order to assess how best to administer the projects in compliance with the County’s procurement process as well as competitive bidding required by New York State law and the relevant federal laws and regulations.

Further, Delaware County’s tourism rail operations have been able to operate and maintain a longer section of track than in Ulster County because the Catskill Revitalization Corporation, which runs Delaware County’s operation, is a not-for-profit that receives significant annual grant funding, including more than $500,000 (based on 2011 figures) from a private foundation.  The Catskill Mountain Railroad is organized as a for-private business and is not eligible for similar grants, which have largely subsidized repairs and upgrades to the railroad corridor in Delaware County.

“It is my great hope that the people of Ulster County, as well as all of our visitors, will have the opportunity to enjoy both a world class rail trail network from the Askokan Reservoir to the Walkway Over the Hudson, along with an enhanced and stronger historic railroad experience in the Phoenicia and Mt. Tremper area. We firmly believe that the people of Ulster County deserve and can have a practical solution that delivers the best of both worlds in a thoughtful segmented plan.  It is also my great hope to avoid litigation,” said County Executive Hein.

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