Ulster legislature OKs deal with DEP to build trail (and no rail)

On Tuesday, May 19, the Ulster County Legislature voted 17 to 6 to endorse a deal between the county and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to build an 11.5-mile hiking, walking and biking trail along the northern shore of the Ashokan Reservoir. The vote begins the process of funding and planning the trail -- and dashes the hopes of railroad enthusiasts who want to preserve the tracks along the route.

The Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR), which operates a tourist railroad on other portions of the old Delaware & Ulster rail corridor that runs from Kingston to Boiceville, holds a lease on the right-of-way that expires in 2016. The CMRR has not run trains on the 11.5-mile Ashokan portion of the tracks for many years, but has still lobbied fiercely to keep the possibility open.

The CMRR, Ulster County Executive Mike Hein and the Friends of the Catskill Mountain Rail Trail have been involved in a public battle over rails v. trails since 2012. 

Above: The proposed trail, in red, along the north edge of the Ashokan Reservoir, in an Ulster County map. 

Tuesday's vote on Resolution 187 authorized Ulster County Executive Mike Hein to execute a deal with the DEP to build the trail. The DEP will contribute $2.5 million to the trail's construction. 

The DEP has long opposed the idea of trains running along the northern edge of the Ashokan Reservoir; the agency considers trails to be less likely to pollute New York City's water supply than trains would. Now that the DEP has a formal deal with Ulster County, trains along the reservoir will be unlikely in the future -- although the terms of the agreement do leave a door open for possibly reestablishing rail someday.

Public support appears to skew in favor of the trail over the rails. On Tuesday, according to the Daily Freeman, dozens of people spoke in favor of the trail during the public comment portion of the legislature's meeting, while only a few spoke against it. 

There was a lengthy back and forth between county legislators and Ulster County's attorney and planning department staff about the implications of Tuesday's vote. Much of the exchange is captured in writing -- you can see the questions and responses, as well as supplementary memos, here.

Supporters of the trail declared the vote a victory. Kathleen Nolan, the co-chair of the Friends of the Catskill Mountain Rail Trail and the research director for Catskill Mountainkeeper, issued a press statement: 

"The strong, bi-partisan support for R187 and the incredible turnout of trail supporters confirms that it is high time that the citizens of Ulster County receive the health, safety, recreational and economic benefits that the Ashokan Recreational Trail will provide. Forty years of an unutilized public asset is enough. This is good government at work."

Ernest Hunt, the spokesman for the CMRR, said via email that there are "many problems" with the deal between the county and the DEP, and that the railroad is working with the county legislature's U&D Corridor Committee to recommend modifications.

One of those modifications would be to allow the railroad to operate from Kingston to the Glenford Dike on the Ashokan Reservoir -- a possilibilty outlined in the CMRR's new business plan.

That would preserve some tracks on the northern shore of the Ashokan, where the DEP has made it clear that it does not want trains to run. 

Hunt is still hopeful, however.

"We believe that our current business plan, which is focused on going to the Glenford Dike, can be accommodated through the [deal between Ulster county and the DEP] if the county and this committee agree," Hunt wrote. 

Tuesday's vote is only the beginning of a long process that will go into building the new rail trail. One sticking point will come when the trail builders seek to remove the railroad tracks to make way for the trail. Thanks to an amendment inserted into a previous county resolution passed last summer, removing the tracks requires a separate vote by the legislature. Stay tuned for another showdown then.