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Supporters: Empire State Trail would put New York on national bicycling map

2018 state budget negotiations draw support for Empire State Trail as well as municipal water infrastructure funding.

Original story published by The Daily Gazette
By Stephen Williams, March 20, 2017

ALBANY — The 750-mile Empire State Trail would have a major economic impact, putting New York on the national map of bicycling destinations, supporters said Monday as they pushed to include funding for it in the 2018 state budget.

The plan's fate remains uncertain, though, despite it having been ballyhooed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January, with each of the three parties to final state budget negotiations having a different stance.

"It's about creating more tourism, and that creates jobs and economic opportunity," trail supporter Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, said during a news conference at the Legislative Office Building.

A short time later, hundreds of construction contractors and their supports rallied for more municipal water infrastructure funding in the building's rotunda. The organizers, Rebuild NY Now, have cited the state's water infrastructure as needing $800 million in immediate investment due to aging systems. Cuomo has proposed $2 billion for water and sewer projects, and the Legislature may add more.

Trail advocates, construction contractors and others are jockeying for position with the two-week countdown beginning toward the state's April 1 budget deadline

But while water infrastructure funding has wide support, the Empire State Trail faces an uncertain future going into the final phase of budget negotiations, when Assembly and Senate leaders sit down with Cuomo.

Cuomo, who proposed the trail in his executive budget in January, is seeking $53 million next year as a major step forward for a project expected to cost $200 million over three years, while the Assembly's one-house budget approved last week included only $20 million, and the Senate one-house budget included no money for the trail system. The one-house budgets carry no weight, but are indications of each chamber's priorities.

A February poll at the Siena College Research Institute found the public views the concept unfavorably, though by a small margin.

"I just think it sounds like a lot of money to people and they don't know much about it," said Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York, a nonprofit state parks advocacy group.

On Monday, that led trail advocates to announce that the American Heart Association and sporting goods retailer REI support the plan, as do environmental, recreation and open space advocacy groups.

"Part of what we're doing is reminding all three (negotiating) parties that there are advocacy groups that really want this to happen," said Erik Kulleseid, a senior vice president at the Open Space Institute.

As proposed, the trail would stretch across the state both north-south and east-west, from Battery Park in Manhattan to the Canadian border. The north-south segment would incorporate the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park in Poughkeepsie, the Olana State Historic Site in Columbia County, the Saratoga battlefield national park, and Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in Lake Champlain.

The east-west component would primarily be the existing Erie Canalway Trail, which runs from Albany to Buffalo, with some gaps. In the Capital Region, the trail passes through Montgomery, Schenectady and Albany counties, with a significant gap in the town of Rotterdam west of Rotterdam Junction.

Advocates portrayed the Empire State Trail as building on local trail systems. The Assembly has proposed that the budget include $1 million to complete local community trail projects.

"It stitches together existing regional trail systems across New York state," Kulleseid said.

Fahy, who has bicycled the canalway trail, said the idea has faced some resistance from others in the Assembly — both upstate and downstate — because it is seen as Cuomo's initiative, in a year when tensions between the governor and the Legislature have run high.

If only $20 million is allocated, Fahy said it should be used to complete the missing trail sections on the canalway. She noted that the recently completed Albany County Rail Trail in Bethlehem has proven popular, as have other local trails.

"It's hard to explain the transformative impact until people have used it," Fahy said.

The American Heart Association's support is based on the health benefits of running, walking and cycling in fighting heart disease and stroke, as well as other diseases including cancer, said Bob Elling, the association's state chair of advocacy.

"It would provide a safe and convenient place to exercise," Elling said. "This is extremely important. Let's get the trail built. Let's support it."

Melissa Abramson, outreach manager for REI, said other recreation trails have brought economic growth with them, and a 750-mile trail would be something REI could market as a destination. Recreational Equipment Inc. — or REI — is a consumer-owned marketing cooperative.

"We could see people using completing it as a badge of honor, like completing the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail," she said.