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Ulster County Legislature Approves Ashokan Rail Trail Funding

The Ulster County Legislature Tuesday night voted to approve funding for the construction of the Ashokan Rail Trail. The county executive and trail enthusiasts have been working toward this for years. Opponents lament the project’s approval and say legal battles may not be over.

The legislature voted on a capital project amendment to authorize financing of the construction of the Ashokan Rail Trail via county bond issues of some $8.2 million. Legislators also approved the hiring of rail trail contractors. Democratic Legislator Kathy Nolan explains more about the financing.

“There are monies to come in from New York state and New York City to help pay for the trail,” Nolan says. “So the bond would allow us to pay for the construction and then be reimbursed for those expenses.”

She says the state and New York City funds should cover about two-thirds of the $8.2 million. Democratic Ulster County Executive Mike Hein first proposed the rail trail in 2012. He says it will be part of a broader recreational menu.

“We’re going to be able to have historic railroad operations existing in the Kingston area. We’re going to have this exciting new kind of business, a rail-biking operation, going in the western part of our county, in the Phoenicia area. And it’s thriving, it’s selling out. We couldn’t be more pleased with the results there,” Hein says. “And then we’re also going to be able to have this world-class rail trail on the entire north shore of the Ashokan Reservoir, opening it up to the public for the first time without permit or fee in over 100 years.”

The Ashokan Reservoir is one of the water sources for New York City. The rail trail will stretch along 11.5 miles of the nearly 39-mile rail corridor known as the Catskill Mountain Branch. It will be accessible for people with disabilities and limited mobility. Republican Ken Ronk is Legislature chairman.

“We’ve been working on this for so many years and it’s been through so many different committees and so much discussion and debate and compromise,” Ronk says. “And I just am so excited that we’re going to start building this trail. We’re going to have a world-class trail around the Ashokan. We’re going to connect it with the Walkway Over the Hudson eventually and the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail and the Hurley Rail Trail. And we’re going to have the most interconnected rail trail, I think, in the state of New York, so it’s really going to be fantastic.”

The non-profit Ulster & Delaware Railway Revitalization Corp. has been challenging the rail trail since January. Larry Roth is the group’s spokesman.

“Well, we have always supported rail with trail. We’ve gotten into this a bit late, and we’re just sorry that that was off the table by the time we got to it,” Roth says. “We don’t have anything against trail people, per se — we recognize there’s a lot of value to trails — but we think it’s not the best way to put the corridor to use. We think using it as a rail corridor and doing other things as well in that corridor would have been a better choice.”

And he thinks the $8.2 million should have been voted upon differently.

“And normally that kind of expense would go for a public referendum,” says Roth. “And if they’re truly confident that what they’re doing is supported by a majority of Ulster County, they should have no trouble with putting it up for a vote.”

Other opponents called for Legislator Nolan to recuse herself from the vote. Here’s Nolan.

“I have been involved with many committees for the Ulster County consideration of the rail trail, but as a volunteer,” says Nolan. “And I don’t understand there to be any conflict in terms of any of my work or any potential for financial benefit from these votes.’

Roth says there are issues the county is not addressing. For example, Roth believes that the easements that allowed rail operation will have reverted to the land owners whose land it crosses, and that these land owners can negotiate for new easements for the trail. Hein addresses that.

“We have a permanent, irrevocable easement with DEP [Department of Environmental with respect to all the entire north shore,” says Hein. “So, it is equivalent to a property ownership right.”

Plus, he says.

“We want the best of all worlds,” Hein says. “And this is that moment when we can all work together and put all the controversy aside and focus on what’s in the best interest of our entire county and, hopefully, all of the Hudson Valley.”

Legislature Chairman Ronk addresses the calls for more public discussion and working out more details.

“It’s not time to continue to reexamine and reexamine the decisions that we’ve made,” says Ronk. “The decisions we’ve made have been based on much debate and discussion and facts, and it’s time to just move forward and build the trail.”

Rosendale resident Nick Mercurio sported a Cape Cod Rail Trail t-shirt, saying he hopes to have an Ashokan Rail Trail shirt this time next year.

“The Cape Cod Rail Trail, where we vacationed just recently, is an economic engine for its region,” says Mercurio. “Now there’s similarities and there’s differences, obviously, between that geography and our geography, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work out the same way.”

Ulster County native Gem Maverick is among rail trail opponents. She wonders how safe it will be to have people on the rail trail next to the water supply. Plus, she says.

“I’m very passionate about the railroad. This county of Ulster was built on the railroad, and it’s our historic right. And I don’t see why they both can’t exist,” Maverick says. “It’s a shame that they’re ripping up the rails and selling the metal. It seems so final that they can’t maintain it until they figure out what could happen further down the line.”

Hein says the rails were part of the removal contract. And he says construction could begin later this month, with the trail ready as early as the end of this year.

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