March 21, 2013
Written by Dan Haas
Making railbed a trail extension is worthy investment
In his recent State of the County address, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro stated “we hope that residents and visitors will soon see progress” on the extension of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail north of Millerton.
Both residents and visitors have been waiting a long, long time for work to begin on this section of the trail.
I once attended a meeting at Webutuck High School convened by then-County Executive William Steinhaus, the purpose of which was to invite public input on the design of the trail north of Millerton. That meeting was 10 years ago.
I’m now in my second round as chair of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association. I’ve seen firsthand the frustration citizens of both Dutchess and Columbia counties feel at the impasse this crucial trail section has been trapped in for too long.
HVRTA and I applaud the attention — as well as the increased funding for the preliminary engineering phase — that County Executive Marc Molinaro has directed toward the trail extension since taking office.
Some background: The rail line that once linked the Harlem Valley to New York City was abandoned in the 1970s, then sold to a developer. The Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association was organized in 1986, advocating for the creation of a trail on the old corridor. Dutchess County responded in 1989 by buying 20 miles of the railbed, and over the years both Dutchess County and New York state have been buying land and developing sections of trail.
As of 2013, we’ve got a lovely 10-mile section connecting the Wassaic train station with Millerton, and a 31/2-mile section whose southern terminus is Undermountain Road, in the Copake area.
But it’s been 10 years since any new trail sections have been built. Between Undermountain Road and Millerton lies eight miles of striking views, pond-side walking and wetlands. Those wetlands make development a challenge, requiring agreement between several different agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association is now 1,500 members strong, with a 27-year history of working toward the vision of a 46-mile trail extending from Wassaic to Chatham.
What motivates us, more than anything, is the realization of the powerful boost such a trail could provide to the towns along its path. Imagine a trail of that length, linking so many scenic and historic sites — a trail that would have a direct rail link to Manhattan.
Many studies have demonstrated the economic value of rail trails: One found that spending along an Ohio trail averaged about $300 per person per year.
Residents of the Poughkeepsie area hardly need to be told that; they’ve seen the impact of the Walkway Over the Hudson and the Dutchess Rail Trail. But given its length, attractions and direct link to a metropolitan area of 8 million people, the potential of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail may be even greater.
This potential has not gone unnoticed.
Recently, HVRTA was awarded $258,750 from the Regional Economic Development Consolidated Funding Grants to pay for the design of the trail from Chatham, 11 miles south, to near the Taconic Parkway. Another grant has already funded a design for the section from Copake to Hillsdale, and HVRTA has just begun to raise funds to turn these five miles into trail.
But the crucial link in this long, beautiful chain is that stretch north of Millerton. We are glad that County Executive Molinaro sees this, and has put his words behind it. We anticipate that he, and the county government he leads, will continue to invest the funds, energy and hard work needed to convert abandoned railbed into civic benefit for all.