On Wednesday, a simmering dispute over the future of the Ulster and Delaware rail corridor in Ulster County erupted in legal action: County executive Mike Hein has served the privately-operated Catskill Mountain Railroad with a legal "demand to cure" notice, alleging that the railroad has violated the terms of their 25-year lease with the county, signed in 1991.
In the letter (embedded below), Hein states that the railroad has defaulted on nine separate points of the lease, and demands that the railroad come into compliance within 30 days, or risk forfeiting their lease and having their property seized.
Hein and county officials claim the railroad has committed the following lease violations:
- Failing to rehabilitate at least 1 mile of track per year to Class 1 standards
- Allowing the track to become overgrown with brush
- Allowing litter to accumulate on the track
- Failing to perform necessary maintenance on drainage facilities, structures and embankments
- Operating a rail yard that violates Kingston city code
- Improperly deducting operating expenses from revenues when calculating rent payments to the county
- Failing to provide the county with full accounting of the railroad's revenue
- Failing to prove insurance coverage to the county
- Restricting public access to the railroad corridor
Hein's office released both the letter and an accompanying press release to local media and the public on Wednesday afternoon. In the press release, Hein advocates the proposed Catskill Mountain Rail Trail project, which would remove the railroad from the eastern Kingston end of the rail corridor, and create a walking and biking path linking Kingston with the Ashokan Reservoir and points beyond:
“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.
In the release, Hein also includes statements of support from several county officials: county attorney Beatrice Havranek; legislator Wayne Harris, who recently resigned from the county's Railroad Advisory Committee, and legislator Hector Rodriguez.
Asked to react to Hein's letter shortly after it was released, Catskill Mountain Railroad board chair Harry Jameson responded to a Daily Freeman reporter with characteristic brio:
Harry Jameson, chairman of the railroad’s Board of Directors, said the county will be “very, very sorry in the long run that they started this.”
“They have conspired, they have colluded, they have slandered and they have defamed us — a good, hard-working bunch of people who have worked very hard to fulfill Ulster County’s original concept of a tourist railroad for the sake of a small special-interest group that Mike Hein has decided to support and won’t back off based on his own arrogance,” Jameson said on Wednesday.
“Politics is what politics is,” he said. “It’s a battle between good and evil, and we’ll see who wins.”
Reached by the Watershed Post on Thursday morning, Jameson had a more soberly-worded statement.
"The Catskill Mountain Railroad welcomes the opportunity once and for all to show that it is in compliance with its lease obligations to Ulster County," Jameson said. "The Catskill Mountain Railroad is ready to sit down with Ulster County, the city of Kingston and the trail community at any time to begin implementation of rail with trail along the Ulster & Delaware corridor."
Jameson said that the railroad was considering its options from a legal standpoint.
While both "trail" and "rail" advocates are currently espousing some form of both rail and trail along the Ulster & Delaware corridor, the two sides have very different visions in mind.
In the area of the old Ulster & Delaware rail corridor near the Ashokan Reservoir, the railroad right-of-way is not wide enough to support side-by-side rail and trail. Catskill Mountain Rail Trail supporters want to see the railroad tracks east of Boiceville converted into a walking trail. Hein and other trail supporters say the railroad's most active area of ridership -- the western end currently running between Boiceville and Mt. Tremper -- will be preserved.
Rail trail supporters claim that the project will be a huge boost to the Ulster County economy and to local tourism, citing the success of the Walkway Over The Hudson and gaining the support of county comptroller Elliot Auerbach for the proposal. But Hein has yet to put forth an in-depth study or detailed plan for the funding of the rail trail project and its economic impact.
For their part, Catskill Mountain Railroad supporters maintain that a walking trail can be built alongside the railroad, But in areas that are too narrow for both uses, they want the railroad tracks preserved. The railroad released a study on the feasibility of side-by-side rail and trail along most of the corridor earlier this year.
Ultimately, the railroad's long-term goal is to connect the two ends of their corridor and provide service all the way from Kingston to Phoenicia, a goal that would become impossible if the eastern tracks are destroyed to make way for the trail. To realize this vision, the railroad would also need to replace track that was badly damaged during the Irene floods -- a project FEMA has set aside funds for, but which the county maintains control over. From Hein's press release:
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.
Below: Ulster County's "Demand To Cure" letter to the Catskill Mountain Railroad.