EDITORIAL: Mow money for trails

THINGS WILL CHANGE IN 2020. The big decisions have already been made. It’s too late to derail it. The fringe elements will fight back but they can’t win. The power of the idea is strong and supporters have big money behind them.

Politics? Nope. It’s the Albany-Hudson Electric Trail (www.ahettrail.org), which doesn’t actually run through either Hudson or Albany. But it will be a walking and bicycling trail with its northern end near the Amtrak station in the City of Rensselaer and its southern terminus in the Town of Greenport, within walking distance of Hudson. The schedule calls for the trail to open in late 2020.

Our regular readers may already know that this 35-mile pathway is a project of the Hudson River Valley Greenway. For decades, opponents of public trails have branded Greenway projects threats to our cherished right to live shorter, less healthy lives. The opposition tends to wither, though, when trail neighbors concede that it’s a pleasure to take a walk without dodging 18-wheelers and texting motorists.

But a contingent of town boards in this county doesn’t want to contribute to the regular maintenance of the trail once it is created. The deal offered to the towns is that the state will foot the bill for constructing the 8-foot-wide trail, estimated to cost up to $45 million. The towns are being asked to pay for mowing the grass.

The Town of Kinderhook and the Villages of Valatie and Kinderhook will host a long section of the trail and have welcomed this public works project. But three other host towns–Chatham, Stuyvesant and Stockport–have refused to keep the grass and brush at bay where the trail runs through their backyards. They have a point.

This is the classic example of an unfunded state mandate. Albany wants local taxpayers to chip in for the hundreds of dollars per year to pay for a project they didn’t request and would never have proposed. These three boards are looking out for their constituents, who work hard to make ends meet and don’t need the state telling them to take a walk.

So here’s the dilemma: This trail is going to get built regardless of what Chatham, Stuyvesant and Stockport say they will or won’t do. But if the trail in a town is not properly maintained, it deprives the residents of that town of the benefits of the trail and undermines the value the trail brings to the other communities along the trail’s path.

What value? Think of the term “walkability.” It means different things, including the option to walk safely from home to stores and services. It also applies to just being able to take a walk somewhere safe and pleasant. And real estate industry studies show that living near a walking/biking trail makes a house more valuable. Think of living near a fire hydrant. You don’t have to use it to benefit from its existence.

One other thing our three trail-skeptic towns are missing involves the public health benefit of having a place where you go outside in a space less likely to harbor ticks. This county has historically had one of the highest rates of Lyme disease per capita in the U.S., and any opportunity to limit the overgrown habitat of the ticks that carry Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses is a cost-saving measure compared to the high cost of medical care that often results from tick bites. And as the climate continues to warm, the threat from ticks will only increase.

The estimate given at one Albany-Hudson Electric Trail meeting was that 40,000 people per year will use this trail. That sounds overwhelming until you do the math and spread those users out over 35 miles and roughly 200 days a year.

Still, local businesses get excited at the thought of thousands new customers in the county. And another bright side statistic reveals that public trails support the creation of new, local, trail-related businesses. Why wouldn’t the taxpayers of Chatham, Stuyvesant and Stockport welcome that?
It’s reasonable for the Greenway to request that the towns maintain the trail as a local buy-in to the project. The three hold-out towns in this county should agree to that bargain.

Then all five towns along the trail should seek assistance–in funding or services–from the county Board of Supervisors. This trail is an asset for the entire county and, like the Harlem Valley Rail Trail and other local trails, it benefits all of us, even if we never set foot on it.

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