Letter to the Editor: Ulster County to pass up $3 million in FEMA grants for Catskill Mountain Railroad

This letter is part of an ongoing conversation in our letters section about the future of the Catskill Mountain Railroad in Ulster County. -- Julia Reischel

Dear Editor:

The statements that the scrapping of the rails West of Phoenicia will not impact the operation of CMRR [Catskill Mountain Railroad] are not entirely true. The rails west of Phoenicia are a County Asset, and are part of what is currently under a lease between Ulster County and the Catskill Mountain Railroad. CMRR has been using portions of the rails from West of Phoenicia to rebuild the active portions of the line, from Phoenicia, east to Kingston. At the present time, the D & U RR has also been running their trains into Ulster County, using a turnout and platform at BellAyre/Highmount. D & U has plans to extend their train service through Highmount to include the Horseshoe Curve. The plan to scrap the rails west of Phoenicia was contrived by Mike Hein with the advice and counsel of Kathy Nolan, chairperson of UTAC. CMRR, as lessee, was never asked if they had need of the rails or plans to continue re-opening the line West of Phoenicia. Mike Hein, having conveniently disbanded the Ulster County Railroad Advisory Board some two years prior, had no source of information as to what CMRR or the D & U RR were doing. In fact, the Catskill Mountain Railroad only found out the rails west of Phoenicia were to be scrapped when they read it in the "Freeman". This is in violation of the lease agreement, and should have been discussed with the Catskill Mountain Railroad.

Mike Hein built the 2013 Ulster County Budget based on a projected return on the sale of the scrapped rails of some $ 620,000.00. How this figure was calculated is not known. The matter does not end with the scrapping of the rails west of Phoenicia. Mike Hein, acting through Chris White, have every intention of scrapping the balance of the railroad, leaving about a five (5) mile landlocked run of track between Phoenicia and Cold Brook for the CMRR. This seems consistent with what Kathy Nolan stated at the Special Session of the UC Legislature, when she stated that CMRR "could not realistically manage more than 5 miles of track". It fits handily into Kathy Nolan's campaign for a "World Class Network of Trails". ALL the other branch line railroads within Ulster County have been converted to rail trails. The Catskill Mountain Railroad is the ONE remaining branch line railroad. With so many miles of old railroad bed already designated for rail trails, why then is it so important to remove the last remaining and operating branch line railroad in Ulster County ? Kathy Nolan has counselled Mike Hein and the result is a campaign not unlike Sherman's March to the Sea, in which railroads were destroyed and rails heated and twisted so there was no chance of relaying them. This is the modern day equivalent, with the rails torn up for scrap.

In July, an engineer from NYSDOT, at a UTAC meeting stated that Ms. Nolan and UTAC were to "reach out to the Catskill Mountain Railroad" before proceeding further with Rail Trail planning. This was conveniently omitted from the UTAC's minutes for that meeting, which, though the meeting was in July, were not distributed until December. The same NYSDOT engineer asked Ms. Nolan why this was omitted from the minutes. At the December UTAC meeting, Kathy Nolan made light of the omission, and no one took credit for preparing the minutes. The assembled UTAC group found the omission laughable. This shows is that UTAC is thinking they are a power unto themselves, acting with arrogance, impunity and the blessing of Mike Hein. It is clear UTAC has no intention of reaching out to CMRR. There is a deliberate campaign to get rid of the Catskill Mountain Railroad. There apparently were discussions about the cutting up the Catskill Mountain Railroad on the part of Mike Hein, Chris White, and Ms. Nolan. CMRR was not privy to any of it. It is a replay of what happened at Munich in 1938, when Chamberlain gave away chunks of other people's countries to appease Hitler.

In the latest barrage, Chris White, working for Mike Hein, questioned why there are vagrants under the Albany Avenue railroad overpass, and why there is garbage along the Kingston portion of the line. Does Mr. White think we have a railroad police force ? If anyone remembers, the portion of the line from Cornell Street yard out to Kingston Plaza was overgrown with brush, used as a public dump, and frequented by drug abusers and vagrants. CMRR sent in work parties of volunteers to clear the brush and debris. Volunteers felled trees and lugged out washing machines, refrigerators, old furniture, household garbage and assorted debris. It filled dump cars on the work trains. CMRR has since maintained that stretch of track. Members of the public continue to dump debris and household goods along it, and CMRR keeps after it. If that stretch of track were to be taken up for a trail , who would maintain it and haul off the garbage and debris ? Some public agency or else a private contractor, and either way would be at the taxpayer's expense. As for the homeless people and vagrants that Mr. White refers to, if Mr. Hein continues with cuts to UIster County Mental Health and similar services, the numbers of "vagrants" or other people with no place else to be, congregating along the railroad will only increase. Mr. White is taking CMRR to task for the failings of an entire system of governmental social welfare agencies and a struggling economy.

Meanwhile, Chris White is now pushing the idea of a Rail Trail along the Ashokan Reservoir. He has a plan and presentation, which he is making to other agencies, and it does NOT include Catskill Mountain Railroad, nor was CMRR consulted in the matter. It confirms Mr. White's plan to terminate CMRR's lease and take the railroad for a trail, scrapping the rails to raise money to keep the budget afloat. There are a few problems, not the least of which is the rails are not an infinite resource. Once they are sold for scrap, that source of money to make a budget fly is gone. What is also gone is the Railroad, which has been paying Ulster County a percentage of its revenue per the lease agreement. Chris White is doing his level best to find anything he can to make out a case against CMRR not meeting the terms of their lease. Mike Hein, Chris White and Kathy Nolan are trying to do what neglect, almost no budget, natural catastrophes, and a bad economy could not do over the past 30 years. They are trying to wipe out THIRTY YEARS OF HARD WORK by the volunteers of CMRR, to say nothing of the materials and heavy equipment time and money CMRR has put into the railroad.

Mr. White was presented with a study done for building two (2) miles of Rail Trail along the old O & W RR. This is level grade, not difficult terrain, and the price was a little over ONE MILLION DOLLARS ($1,000,000.00). Mr. White chose to disregard those figures and is touting the Rail Trail around Ashokan Reservoir, and does not seem concerned with what the real costs to design and build such a trail might be. In an era when funding for anything is almost nonexistant, where would the money to build a rail trail come from ? The TAXPAYERS.

In the meanwhile, Ulster County has filed and gotten FEMA grants to the tune of a little over Three Million Dollars to repair damage to the right of way from Hurricane Irene. Unfortunately, Mike Hein has held up any action on the part of Ulster County to follow through so these grants can be utilized. Those grants would rebuild a County Asset, and provide construction jobs and spin offs of money to suppliers, restaurants, and motels. The People of Ulster County are being done a great disservice by any foot dragging on the part of Mike Hein and Chris White to get the FEMA Grants in place and repair work underway. UTAC is dreaming of trails, and if CMRR got the FEMA grants to repair the ROW, BOTH UTAC and CMRR would benefit. CMRR is willing to help UTAC with some trail building, and having a contiguous ROW is a first step. It is apparent that Mike Hein and Kathy Nolan along with Chris White, acting out of hatred of CMRR, are going to PASS UP $3,000,000 in FEMA Grants sooner than see any repairs done to the railroad right of way, which IS an Ulster County asset. The efforts of Mike Hein and Kathy Nolan to destroy the Catskill Mountain Railroad are going to ultimately cost the TAXPAYERS a great deal of money with little or no benefit to most of the TAXPAYERS.

What is quite puzzling in this is the role of Chris White. Mr. White is obviously paid a salary by Ulster County. Who hired him and what his position is would be interesting to learn. From all indications, Mr. White is being paid to get rid of the Catskill Mountain Railroad, rather than work for the good of Ulster County. If the County is in a budget crunch, why not fire Mr. White ? His efforts are not helping anyone in particular, other than Mike Hein and UTAC. It is time to reinstate the Ulster County Railroad Advisory Committee and bring ALL the dealing with Catskill Mountain Railroad out into the light of an open meeting with CMRR privy to its own fate, rather than having it decided ala Munich, 1938. It is time to ask why Mike Hein has made such a dedicated effort to on the destroy the Catskill Mountain Railroad instead of acting in the best interest of the People of Ulster County.

J.M.Michaels, PE