“Wallets on Wheels” local rail bed networks replaced by new trail tourist industry

Deputy County Executive Tim Weidermann

KINGSTON – Ulster County officials discussed recent progress made interconnecting old railroad beds into a modern rail-trail network for bicycle and pedestrian use, Thursday morning at the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce monthly breakfast. They were joined by the City of Kingston grants manager, Kristen Wilson, who oversees associated projects within the municipality.

“You may have noticed that, in the last two years especially, the buzz about rail trails has really reached a fevered pitch,” said Assistant Deputy County Executive Tim Weidermann.  “Two years ago, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Empire State Trail, a 750-mile statewide trail, which stretches from New York City to Canada, and from Albany to Buffalo, it was clear that trails were having their moment, so to speak.”

The $200 million project crosses the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie and continues its way northwards through Ulster County towards the state capital. The work is planned to be completed in 2020. Hundreds of million in additional state funding and matching private grants will be added to the effort through related projects.

“Trails are becoming more and more a tourist attraction; they can stimulate an economy by driving new visitor spending, but it goes way deeper, with a history that stretches back, to the 1970s and 80s, when railroads started to go defunct throughout the country,” Weidermann said. “These aren’t just short unconnected segments, but a cohesive system that can stretch nearly the entire width and breadth of our county.”

By the end of 2019, Ulster County is expected to have over 60 miles of interconnected rail trails. Combined with 80 additional miles of carriage trails at Mohonk Preserve, Minnewaska State Park, and Sam’s Point Preserve, this brings the total to 140 miles of multi-use trails.

Weidermann gave an economic overview of similar rail trails in other states, including the 240-mile Katy Trail State Park, developed in Missouri between 1982 and 2011, along the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad line. The 400,000 annual visitors generate $10 million in yearly revenue, directly and indirectly, representing a 17-to-1 return on investment calculated across a ten year period, Weidermann told the chamber members.

Another project, the Great Allegheny Passage, stretches 150 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, drawing 930,000 annual visitors, with $50 million in yearly tourist revenue, a 6-to-1 return on investment. Weidermann quoted a Pew Charitable Trust report, calling bicycle tourists “Wallets on Wheels.”

Chris White, Ulster County deputy director of planning, discussed progress on four current local rail trail development projects, with about $40 million in public and private funding: Hudson Valley Rail Trail Phase 4 in the Town of Lloyd, connecting New Paltz to the Walkway Over the Hudson; Ashokan Rail Trail in the towns of Olive & Hurley; The Kingston Rail Trail (a.k.a. The O&W Link Trail, connecting Kingston with the towns of Ulster & Hurley; and the Ulster County Midtown Linear Park, which comes out into Kingston Plaza shopping mall. His presentation was similar to the one he gave on March 20 at the Restorative Justice Center, with a slideshow of before-and-after photographs.

“Our county attorney has noted we are not responsible if you call in sick to work after you see this,” White joked about the outdoor attractions he presented to the audience.

The homeless population, which traditionally took shelter from the elements unseen beneath Col. Chandler Drive, was only mentioned by reference to the mattresses and shopping carts they left behind. White said last March that he did not know where they relocated after being displaced by construction of the Midtown Linear Park.

Kingston City director of Grants Management Kristen Wilson discussed progress on the Kingston Greenline, which includes the Kingston Point Rail Trail, the Broadway Streetscape, the Midtown Linear Park, the AVR Hudson Landing Promenade Project, parts of which will be incorporated into the Empire State Trail. The city has secured $30.8 million in grant projects since 2016, much of it for streets and sewers, she said.

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