by Max Cea
Area outdoor enthusiasts will soon be able to boldly jog, walk and cycle into the woods on a paved path where no man has gone before, following the path of a train that once did. The Joseph B. Clarke Rail Trail, which runs from Oak Tree Road in Tappan to Orangeburg, will be extended 1.6 miles from Lowes on Route 303 to Blauvelt. “With funding from NYS Department of Transportation, we’ll break ground in August of 2014 and finish the project within a year,” said Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart. “Right now we are focused on the design of the street crossings and connections at the beginning and end of this section of the trail.”
Although New York State will fund construction of the trail, Orangetown’s Highway and Parks and Recreation Departments will be in charge of the trail’s maintenance. The new segment of the trail will conform in appearance to most of the existing trail. The trail will be ten feet wide, mostly level, and paved with gravel and macadam pavement.
As the region recovers from recession, the extended rail trail — along with a new “Shared Use Path” on the north span of the new Tappan Zee Bridge — will bring thousands of new visitors on foot and two wheels to Orangetown, Piermont, Nyack and Tarrytown. According to Parks and Trails New York (PTNY), bicycle tourism is a low-impact way to give local economies a much needed shot in the arm. “Bicycle Tourists… are well-educated older adults from upper-income households that typically travel in groups of friends or family members. They spend money and are interested in learning about your community. [This group] provides an incentive for preserving a community’s unique character, historic heritage and natural features.” In other words, the cyclists we will soon see will be very different from the uber-riders with whom Rockland residents have become familiar. They are likely to take shorter rides than the serious road warriors who ride up 9W from NYC. They will have their cars and their wallets with them when they ride about a dozen miles across the new bridge and through the adjacent downtowns. Additionally, PTNY says they are likely to be shoppers, spenders and site-seers.
The business community in the river villages is eager to greet these new customers. “Nyack already knows what a boon for business having hundreds of bicycle riders from the larger metropolitan area can be,” says Nyack Chamber of Commerce President Scott Baird. “Every Saturday and Sunday- local coffee shops, breakfast restaurants, see a great influx of business as bicyclists from all over come to enjoy Nyack’s unique shops, eateries, and natural beauty.”
But local residents have a mixed response to the serious cyclists who flock to Nyack from the five boroughs and North Jersey. Motorists don’t like it when bikers run stop signs — although only about three out of ten drivers come to a complete legal stop themselves. Cyclists are miffed when cars play chicken with bikers and violate New York State’s Safe Distance (“3 foot”) law when passing. Motorists regularly break the exceeding posted speed limits; cyclists break the law when riding two abreast in the river villages. Forget what they say about each other, what it really is about is speed: cars don’t like anything that interferes with their ability to go as fast as they want; cyclists don’t see why they need to slow down for stop signs if no one is in the intersection. Bottom line? It’s a mess and both the motorists and the motorless are to blame.
There Was A Train To Nyack?
The Erie Railroad route from Nyack to Jersey City became known as the Northern Branch. It extended through the towns of Nyack, Grandview, Piermont and Tappan, New York. In New Jersey, it went through the towns of Northvale, Norwood, Closter, Demarest, Creskill, Tenafly, Englewood and Ridgefield Park. In the late 1800s, this line carried over 60 trains a day! After the Erie-Lackawana merger, trains terminated in Hoboken.
Commuter service was discontinued in the 1960s. The tracks remained intact to Piermont until the Continental Can factory was closed. It was replaced by luxury condominiums with spectacular Hudson River views. In the 1980s, the tracks were removed from all portions of the Northern Branch in New York State. Local freight service is still run on the line as far north as Northvale on the NY/NJ border.
And it’s going to get a lot more crowded out there when the new Shared Use Path opens on the new Tappan Zee Bridge. Today, as many as 5000 cyclists travel to Nyack on a busy summer weekend — that’s almost as many people as live in the village. The Walkway Over The Hudson — a tourist attraction between Ulster and Dutchess Counties, near Poughkeepsie — projects about 500,000 visitors each year. If the river villages got 1/10 of that traffic it would be overwhelming. But the likelihood is that the region would see at least as many as 500,000, given Rockland and Westchester’s vicinity to Bergen County and New York City.
Planners have floated the idea of getting the Tappan Zee Bridge project to pave the rest of the rail trail from Sparkill to Nyack, giving future tourists easy access to the business districts and available parking in Piermont, Nyack, Orangeburg and Blauvelt. If the state paved the remainder of the rail trail through these villages and addressed the security concerns of property owners, South Nyack, Grandview and Piermont could be relieved of the maintenance costs and liability they currently assume. In addition to it being good for local businesses, Baird says it would make things safer for cyclists and motorists. “Having a paved separate trail would improve the safety for drivers and bicyclists alike,” he says.
But local officials aren’t biting. “What is there to gain?” says Larry Lynn, Mayor of Grandview. “It’s not like we’re going to open up a Starbucks down there. We have no commercial property. Whereas Piermont and Nyack profit from the traffic and bicyclists who come up here, we don’t. They just come buzzing through our village, yelling. There’s no commercial value. We don’t want tourism in Grandview because there’s no place for there to be tourism. We have no water front park. We have nothing to sell people. We’re just a quiet residential village who wants to maintain its character.”
Grandview, which sits between South Nyack and Piermont, has a population of only 285 homes. About a dozen homes in Grandview are adjacent to the unimproved rail trail. In addition to addressing the current safety concerns and future parking issues, a paved rail trail of about a dozen miles from Nyack to Blauvelt would add a popular new public park for the 47,000 people who live in Orangetown.
Grandview’s opposition to paving the rail trail isn’t new, according to David Schloss, a biking enthusiast and co-owner of Gypsy Donut in Nyack. “From what I’ve heard the only village that opposes it is Grandview, and that hell would have to freeze over before they take steps to increase the use of the trail.” When asked if Grandview would consider supporting the project if the state paid to pave it and assumed maintenance and liability, Lynn left open the possibility of working with the state. “I’d want to see that it’s safe and I’d want to see that someone else is incurring the costs,” he said. “We’re open to any discussions that are to be had, but the issue hasn’t been raised in years.”
The Orangeburg part of the rail trail is named after Joseph B. Clarke, Orangetown’s Superintendent of Parks and Recreation, from 1969 to 1996, who championed the idea of re-purposing the abandoned Erie train line as a rail trail. In South Nyack the trail is called the Raymond G. Esposito Memorial Trail in honor of the former mayor who promoted the trail’s expansion. Starting at the tennis courts on South Franklin in South Nyack, they trail passes four downtown shopping districts, three libraries, a college campus, several churches, three shopping centers, secluded woodlands and wildlife and plant sanctuaries, hamlet center parks and several streams, ponds and a reservoir. In Grandview, the rail trail is known as Hader Park.
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- Joseph B. Clarke Rail Trail Overview and Directions, Rails-To-Trails Conservancy TrailLink.com
- Walkway Over The Hudson, Economic Impact Study, Feb 2012
- Bicyclists Bring Business, A Study of Bike Tourism on communities along the Erie Canal, Parks and Trails New York
- Orangetown to Expand Rail Trail to Blauvelt, Rockland County Times, 5/9/2013
- Cyclist Says 3 Foot Law Ignored By Cars, Cops, 7/9/2012
Max Cea is a contributing editor at NyackNewsAndViews and a Junior at the College of William & Mary.