By Tyler Murphy
NEW SCOTLAND — By this summer, a 2.6-mile section of the Helderberg Hudson Rail Trail, nearly all of the 2.8-mile trail passing through the village of Voorheesville and the town of New Scotland, will be open, organizers say.
The entire 9.6-mile trail begins on South Pearl Street in the city of Albany and goes to about Upper Font Grove Road in New Scotland.
A half-mile section requiring the repair of two rail bridges has slowed progress on the project but will soon be addressed, explained Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy Trails’ Operations Director Scott Lewendon.
He said the conservancy and Albany County had come to an agreement on how to soon repair the two rail bridges, one crossing the Vly Creek and the other passing over Route 155 in the village.
“The agreement also states the section between Route 155 and Voorheesville is not open because there are two bridges, one over 155 that needs 8-foot, protective fencing and a small bridge over Vly Creek, running about 500 feet from Voorheesville Avenue, that just has railroad ties on it. It needs a deck and rails for safety,” said Lewendon.
Of the major obstacles facing the trail’s opening is the cost of refurbishing the railroad bridges, such as the two in Voorheesville. The bridges, built for carrying railcars, have hazardous openings along their floors, no safety railings, and lack any other pedestrian accommodation.
After reviewing the projects, the county gave the conservancy permission to repair and augment the bridge over Vly Creek with wooden beams and with volunteers labor. However, the bridge over Route 155 requires metal railings and fencing and the county has required certified construction professionals, who will be paid the prevailing wage, complete the work.
“There is going to be a volunteer role on the two bridges but federally required safety equipment — guard rails, and an 8-foot tall fence — are needed over Route 155. To make certain we’re building them to specifications, the county is requiring the hiring of a welder for the work,” said New Scotland Councilman Daniel Mackay, who has been working on the trail project for the town.
Mackay said work on the bridges would begin in the spring.
“We’re all ready to go advertise for bids and we have a cadre of volunteers ready to help,” added Lewnedon. “The target is to get both bridges done by June 1, which is National Trail Day.”
Besides organizing volunteers, the conservancy is also covering the liability insurance for public use of the trail, while the county is providing signs and access barriers.
While the town, village, and other municipalities may initially dedicate some heavy equipment and commercial mowers to get the trails ready, much of the path’s routine maintenance will fall to volunteers, organized by the land conservancy and its committee, the Friends of the Rail Trail.
The two bridges will be refurbished with a $10,000 donation from the Voorheesville Community and School Foundation, made last May.
“Funding will primarily be used to purchase materials necessary for safety improvements including decking and railing over Vly Creek and protective chain-link fencing welded onto the bridge spanning Route 155,” said Nancy Rucks, president of the Voorheesville Community and School Foundation, in a statement at the time.
The rail trail was formerly part of the Delaware & Hudson Railway until Albany County bought the nine-mile stretch of land from the Canadian Pacific Railway in 2009 with the intent of creating a pedestrian and bike path connecting the suburbs to the city.
Albany County paid $700,000 for approximately 117 acres –– half from a grant received from the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and the other half from the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, a not-for-profit land conservation organization.
So far, the only part of the trail to near completion is the 2.6-mile length due to be finished this spring in New Scotland and the 1.9-mile segment in the town of Bethlehem, which is already open.
Initially, the county envisioned the project would cost about $7.8 million, creating a paved pedestrian and bike path along the route, which also involves refurbishing a number of rail bridges spanning creeks and roadways with safety modifications.
The county had depended on grants to pay for the trail, but has so far received only one, from the Federal Transportation Improvement Program, for $2.4 million.
“We originally spent about $500,000 on an engineering study for the scope of the project. The balance is still with the New York State Department of Transportation and allocated for this project. We need to do a revision of the scope of the project, have that approved and then proceed. The money is still there,” said the county spokeswoman, Mary Rozak, in an e-mail last summer.
With the county unable to commit the remaining amount, due to fiscal problems, construction of the project has slowed.
Under pressure from advocates of the project to continue development, the trail has been making piecemeal progress on the local level as municipal governments and non-for-profit conservancy groups agreed cover to liability and maintenance responsibilities.
Though the end of the trail in New Scotland and the village may soon be open, Lewnedon said the logistical issues and cost in completing work on the trail it increases near the city. One of the largest obstacles is repairing or replacing a 120-foot long, rusting rail bridge crossing the steep Normans kill gorge.
“The challenges get bigger the closer to the city. The county really needs to do that part of it with the federal funding made available,” said Lewnedon, adding the conservancy lacks the resources to tackle such a large project.
A volunteer program that has already been in place in Bethlehem will soon becoming to New Scotland and Voorheesville, said Lewnedon.
“The Trail Ambassadors’ Program is a great program for volunteers,” said Lewendon. “It started in Bethlehem and is in its second year. Each volunteer gets training to be a trail ambassador. They walk the trail at least once during their assigned week and their responsibility is to meet and greet people on the trail. They also pick up litter and just keep an eye out. We’ve got a group of volunteers lined up once the section opens but we’re always looking for more,” said Lewendon.
Anyone interested in becoming a trails ambassador or a general volunteer should contact the conservancy by phone at, 436–6346 for more information.