EDITORIAL: Slish, spash. Train’s coming!

AMTRAK RELEASED ITS ANNUAL RIDERSHIP numbers last week and Hudson was once again the line’s third busiest passenger train station in the state after New York City and Rensselaer (Albany). Here’s the weird part: of the 205,919 people who took an Amtrak train to or from Hudson last year, the number of people who arrived in Hudson outnumbered those who left… by a lot.

What happened to those extra 5,053 people Amtrak says got off here but who didn’t depart by train? Did they buy one-way tickets? There have to be rational answers that don’t involve hitchhiking or extraterrestrial abductions, but whatever the explanation, an influx of people is welcome news.

The Census Bureau says that Columbia County lost population between the 2010 and 2015. That’s fewer people to share the tax burden for essential services. But the growth in train passengers arriving in Hudson means that the total number of people arriving here by train each year is nearly twice as large as the county’s total population. Good thing they didn’t all come at once.

These numbers are not a fluke. They show a steadily increasing number of visitors and commuters that fits with the evidence of sustained growth in economic activity in Hudson and other communities around the county, like Chatham, Hillsdale, Valatie. By one recent count there are now 20 places in the Village of Chatham where it’s possible to buy a meal and sit at a table to eat it. Is that a fair yardstick of progress? Ask a hungry traveler.

Another measure of what’s happening here was the announcement last week of 17 state Regional Economic Development Council grants to organizations in this county for a total of $2.8 million (See Page 1 story). The money will help fund cultural and recreational efforts by groups like the Olana Partnership, Hudson Opera House, Historic Hudson and Harlem Valley Rail Trail, among others. Like it or not, the county is becoming a destination rather than a detour.

Aside from debates over how much and what kind of local development is appropriate, there are larger issues at stake for those of us who live and work here following the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Consider Amtrak.

Amtrak is a private corporation created by the federal government. It receives federal funds as well as ticket revenue. Although Amtrak has made upgrades between New York City and Albany, the line needs improvements. But many Republican members of Congress don’t believe the government should support Amtrak and want its funding cut. That would have a direct impact on the economic future of this county, so it’s important that constituents of our new congressman, John Faso, encourage him to do whatever he can to ensure adequate funding for Amtrak.

Mr. Trump says he wants to spend huge amounts on building and repairing infrastructure. This same approach that helped pull the country out of the recent recession. The difference is that Mr. Trump is trying to win over GOP opponents by promising that much of the money would come from private investment, though there are no specifics yet.

In the past the president-elect voiced what sounded like positive thoughts about passenger rail service, which suggests that he might want to fund rail improvements. He has a big say in that discussion because, as president, he appoints the members of Amtrak’s board.

It’s not clear he knows that one of the greatest practical threats facing Amtrak around here is that the rail line is not far above the surface of the Hudson River. Melting ice in polar regions is raising sea levels, and the Hudson River is an estuary. As sea levels rise so will the river. To ensure uninterrupted rail service in the near future, Amtrak engineers will have to factor in the effects of global warming.

But Mr. Trump has nominated a vigorous climate change denier, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, to head the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which studies the impacts of climate change. And he has nominated the Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, another choice that underscores arrogance in the face of climate change, as if our powers were superior to nature’s.

There’s reason to be upbeat about the local economy. There’s cause to be active too. The arctic is warming at twice the rate scientists anticipated. Seal levels are rising. It’s in our best interests to slow the water from lapping at the tracks in case the money to move them can’t be found.

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