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Progress made on Ulster County rail trails

NEW PALTZ — Popular efforts to convert former rail lines into biking and hiking trails, across Ulster County and the state, are making steady progress near New Paltz.

A trio of nonprofits — the Open Space Institute, the Wallkill Valley Land Trust and the Hudson River Valley Greenway — are a month away from finishing a $1.5 million project to improve the northern 9.5-mile stretch of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, Open Space Institute leaders said on Tuesday.

The local rail trail section begins at Cragswood Road in New Paltz, running through the towns of Rosendale and Ulster, and ends at Route 32 in the city of Kingston. OSI is overseeing the improvements, partly funded with private money from the Butler Conservation Fund.

In Ulster County, the focus has been on the former rail lines that have become Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, Hudson Valley Rail Trail, O&W Rail Trail, and trails along the Ulster & Delaware Railroad corridor, including the Ashokan Rail Trail.

By year’s end, Ulster County leaders say they’ll have made significant progress toward the ambitious long-term goal of creating a network of interconnected multi-use trails. Through a series of local, county and state projects, including the nearly completed Empire State Trail, much of the county’s rail trail system will be linked.

Meanwhile, statewide, by year’s end, most of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s nearly four-year-old initiative to create the Empire Rail Trail is expected to be complete. That 750-mile project spans the state, allowing bikers and hikers to travel from New York City to Canada and from Buffalo to Albany, including via Ulster County’s rail trails.

New local multi-use trails have proven wildly popular. The recently completed 11.5-mile Ashokan Rail Trail, running along the Ashokan Reservoir between West Hurley and Boiceville, has attracted 220,000 people since it opened a year ago, Ulster County leaders said.

“Our extensive rail trail system is a competitive advantage,” said Ulster County Tourism Director Lisa Berger. “It’s a differentiator that helps Ulster County stand out, increasing visitation,” driving tourism spending, attracting new residents and bolstering businesses.

OSI’s River-to-Ridge Trail in New Paltz has proven another recent success. It connects to the local rail trails, and it’s attracted a whopping 200,000 visitors over the last year — twice its first-year usage after it opened in September 2018.

“(OSI leaders) want to make the land inviting and welcoming to the public, so people want to conserve and protect it, especially now in a time of turbulence, when people are looking for outdoor recreation opportunities nearby,” said Eileen Larrabee, OSI’s spokeswoman.

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