Letter to the Editor: Catskill Mountain Railroad Supports Rail-with-Trail to Ashokan Reservoir

The following is an open letter to Ulster County Executive Mike Hein from Harry G. Jameson III, the Chairman of the Catskill Mountain Railroad Company. Jameson submitted this letter as a letter to the editor. For other letters about the future of the Catskill Mountain Railroad in Ulster County, click here, here and here. -- Julia Reischel

Dear Mr. Hein,

I am writing in response to the State of the County Address which you gave last week. We understand that you are still intent upon shutting down the Catskill Mountain Railroad Company’s Kingston operations for the plan of creating a hiking trail to the Ashokan Reservoir. The assumption you are making is that rail and trail are incompatible. We disagree. The CMRR will soon be publishing a study of the corridor that will clearly show that rail and trail can share the right-of-way. We wish that you had consulted with us before you launched your campaign to eliminate us, but we assume others gave you incomplete information. We would like to set the record straight.

In your Address you said "we can not get gridlocked in the endless railroad vs. rail trail debate." We agree, because as far as we can see, running a trail alongside the railroad tracks makes sense for both the railroad and the trail enthusiasts. As we have said multiple times, the Catskill Mountain Railroad supports building a trail along side the railroad and by possibly eliminating railroad access to the reservoir, Ulster County will never be able to realize the full positive economic impact the CMRR’s tourist trains are capable of providing.

You also said “Simply put, we cannot let more decades pass and more opportunity pass us by, especially when now is the perfect time to act.” We also agree. Although the CMRR has had to make do with a lack of County support, with additional funding both the railroad and the trail can be built more quickly.

You next said, “For railroad enthusiasts, I believe in, and will fully support, a tourism based railroad operation in the Phoenicia / Mt. Tremper area.” First of all, we are not railroad “enthusiasts”. That term is reserved for rail fan photographers, model railroaders, and those guys that mount locomotive horns to their cars. We are the Catskill Mountain Railroad Company Incorporated which was chartered as a railroad corporation in the State of New York and our members are Volunteer Railroad Workers. We are historic preservationists, craftsmen, mechanics, educators, musicians, entrepreneurs, small business owners, welders, realtors, fund managers, mothers, fathers, retirees, all who work under Federal Railroad Administration criteria.. We each donate hundreds of hours per year to rebuild and operate a railroad. We also have highly-qualified train crews, with some of our members having gone on to careers as professional railroaders for several other Class 1 freight carriers.

And Finally, you said “But the fact remains, decades are passing, and the tens of millions of dollars needed to build out and operate a fully functional railroad system have not come and will not be coming anytime soon." Here we must set the record straight. Now that FEMA funds have been awarded to Ulster County to rebuild the railroad damage from Hurricane Irene, including the Boiceville trestle, and the CMRR itself has repaired Bridge C9 near Kingston , the hardest part is behind us. The bulk of the work that remains is replacing ties on the 16 miles of track between the bridges. The Adirondack Scenic recently repaired 6 miles of similar track for $250,000 per mile. At that rate the cost to fully repair the railroad, Kingston to Phoenicia , is $4 million dollars.

We feel compelled to remind you that the O&W trail from Washington Avenue to Hurley, is 1.78 miles long and budgeted for $1.235 million in the 2013-2018 Executive Capital Improvement Program (project 334), or will cost nearly $700,000 per mile. This indicates that it is building the trail, not restoration of the railroad that will cost the “tens of millions of dollars”.

Clearly you have heard the benefits of trails, and how they allow spontaneous use of the corridor and make people healthy. But what about the handicapped, the seniors citizens, and young children? Or what happens when it rains or snows? The train will allow all weather, handicapped accessible, and age friendly access when trail use is not feasible. Including the railroad alongside a trail allows the maximum benefits for the public, so that everyone can use the corridor. In other words, keeping the railroad allows for all in the community to enjoy the benefit of the corridor, not just the young and healthy.

Nevertheless, we applaud your efforts to get funding for the trail and believe it will be an enhancement to the corridor. We also applaud your efforts to open up the Ashokan Reservoir to recreational use, as has been done with other reservoirs. Opening up the Ashokan Reservoir will indeed make it a popular destination like the “Walkway over the Hudson ”. But it will also bring traffic congestion and parking issues all along the Route 28 corridor, unless the railroad is there to help alleviate those problems. People won’t walk up from Kingston to West Hurley on the trail – they will just drive to West Hurley and access the reservoir from there.

With repairs to the C9 bridge complete, the CMRR is presently heading west towards the reservoir. With our own funds, we should make it to the reservoir in 3-4 years. With only half of the $2 million of trail funds you may get from the state, we could be there in one year. Instead, that amount will be only enough to barely get the trail out of Kingston at $700k per mile. Where will the remaining tens of millions come from to finish the trail?

In 2006, a study of the corridor was done by ALTA engineering. One of its concluding statements was:

“The future vision of the Ulster & Delaware Rail-With-Trail is a significant opportunity for local communities, Ulster County , and the region. The combination of two historic tourist railroads, the trolley and railroad museums, restored historic sites, and a trail for multiple uses will compliment the tourism and recreation economy of the Catskill Mountain Region. The project can become a model of sustainable transportation and cooperation between a wide range of public, private, and nonprofit partners.”

We agree with the conclusion of the ALTA study, and believe that we can all work together for what is best for Ulster County. We at the CMRR look forward to making the dream of access to the Ashokan reservoir, with a trail alongside the railroad, a reality. Our report, which we have worked on for the past three months, will show this is more than possible. The rail with trail concept will allow the skilled volunteers of the CMRR to work with the trail enthusiasts and create a truly “World Class” approach to the maximum use of a railroad corridor, and be a model for other trail projects. But removing an existing, growing tourist attraction in Kingston such as the CMRR, without any study, is a poor decision based on misinformation.

We hope that you will read this letter and realize that you have only heard one point of view on the best use of the corridor. You have not fully considered our efforts or our input and it is not easy to reach out to you when you continue to threaten our hard work and visions. I think that once all the facts are presented , that you will see that the CMRR can help make Rail-With-Trail a reality, and needs to be part of the plan to fully benefit Ulster County ’s future. The Catskill Mountain Railroad Company, Inc. is a grassroots organization that offers Ulster County a Public/Private partnership that can be a model for others to use for getting things done, not only on the trail, but in other areas of Ulster County Government as well.

In Closing, the CMRR looks forward to working with you and the Ulster County Trail Advisory Committee to create a World Class Rail-With-Trail from Kingston to the Ashokan Reservoir for the benefit of everyone.

Harry G. Jameson III
Chairman, Catskill Mountain Railroad