Push for Heritage Trail Extension Continues

Pending various approvals and funding, construction could start in second half of 2016
August 12, 2015 Last Updated: August 16, 2015

MIDDLETOWN—There is tentative optimism among those who have been waiting and yearning to see the extension of the heritage trail from Goshen to Wallkill realized.

Middletown Mayor, Joseph DeStefano; O.C. Parks and Rec Commissioner, Rich Rose; O.C. Executive, Steve Neuhaus; and at least a handful of legislators are all behind it.

But the extension of the historic railroad trail is far from assured.

The Orange County Legislature’s Physical Services Committee is discussing the trail extension’s environmental impact later this month, and if it passes the committee, it will be voted on in the legislature sometime in September.

The bigger hurdle will be the funding, and getting the cash-strapped county to approve a multi-million dollar project whose estimated cost may have risen.

Jeff Berkmen, an Orange County legislator representing Middletown, said the proposed figure has jumped from $10 million to $12 million when he spoke with the legislative council on Tuesday, and he doesn’t know why.

County Executive spokesman Justin Rodriguez said the cost is still projected at $10 million but could rise after the environmental review is finished and they open the project up to bidding.

“Overall on construction, we are starting to see a pricing increase as the economy recovers and construction increases, but we won’t know the final cost of course until SEQRA [State Environmental Quality Review Act] is done and bids are let,” Rodriguez wrote in an email.

The county would have to front the money, and there is no telling when it will be reimbursed.

As a representative of Middletown and someone who wants to see the project move forward, Berkman is worried that his fellow legislators will balk if the amount increases.

Even though the federal government is supposed to pay for 80 percent of the project, and if the county can secure 10 percent funding from the state, it would only have to pay 10 percent itself, the county would have to front the money, and there is no telling when it will be reimbursed.

Berkman said with the federal/state funding for Valley View nursing home, the money was dispersed sporadically.

“You would think it would come like once a year or every six months or something, but one time you’ll get it in a year and a quarter, and the next time you’ll get it three-quarters of a year. Sometimes you get it in two years,” he said. “And their promises often aren’t met, so that’s another problem.”

He said he wants to see any agreement the county makes to get state and federal aid to make sure the county doesn’t get left with a tab it can’t pay.

Breaking it Down

To make it more manageable financially and politically, Berkman is proposing breaking the extension of the trail into segments and funding one segment at a time.

Mayor DeStefano said in late July that funding a smaller portion of the trail first was not even part of the discussion at that point.

“As a matter of fact, the plans are at some stage to make the trail longer,” he said in a phone interview.

In his understanding, the county got a significant amount of money from the federal government for the planning stages, and if the county doesn’t pull through with the project, it will have to return that money.

‘They would be responsible for more reimbursements to the federal government than they would their copay,” he said.

Berkman said the benefit of breaking the project up into pieces would allow the project to be completed as planned, but would segment funding up into different fiscal years. This would make it more manageable and relieve the county from having to take out bonds to pay for the project, which he was wary of doing.

Timeline

After the plan passes the environmental review process, it would be open for bonding.

The funding would have to pass approval before the Ways and Means committee before it goes before the legislature for approval in the budget, which starts in September.

If the funding is approved this fiscal year, O.C. Parks and Recs Commissioner Rich Rose said construction could start as early as the second half of 2016.

“There is a process that has to be gone through whenever you’re doing a project with state and federal funding,” he said, acknowledging the long timeline.

The current Heritage Trail goes from Monroe to Goshen and runs 11.5 miles along the old railroad track. The extension would almost double the size of the trail and bring it into the town of Wallkill.

To contact this reporter, email holly.kellum@epochtimes.com