Off the Northway: At long last, Zim Smith Trail is done

There’s been no ribbon-cutting yet for the Zim Smith Trail — and given the long history of obstacles

There’s been no ribbon-cutting yet for the Zim Smith Trail — and given the long history of obstacles and delays to Saratoga County’s biggest recreational infrastructure project, what’s the rush?

But the 9-mile-long trail that follows an old railroad bed from Coon’s Crossing in Halfmoon to the village of Ballston Spa is finally finished.

It’s taken 20 years — figuring conservatively — and it has faced a series of mind-numbing complexities, ranging from tight-fisted funders to a nearly endless negotiation over the right to parallel the railroad tracks in Ballston Spa.

In recent weeks, though, the last two miles between Curtis Lumber in Ballston and Ballston Spa have been completed, using a combination of county cash and federal economic stimulus money.

The brand-new section runs through pretty woods and past small wetlands. Now is a great time to get out and see them — Goldilocks weather, not too hot or too cold. Even the bushes are joining the maples in turning ochre, vermillion and other shades whose definition should be left to art majors, not newshounds.

The new section also includes a bridge over the Mourning Kill, the biggest stream the Zim Smith Trail crosses, a lovely little creek.

My memory being about as reliable as a used Yugo, I dug through files to come up with some trail history.

The railroad tracks were torn up in 1965, and in the 1970s the county acquired the land so the county sewer district could use the right-of-way for its main sewer line between Saratoga Springs and the county sewage treatment plant in Halfmoon.

Sometime in the 1980s there began to be discussion about a “Mid-County Trail,” something joggers and cyclists could use that would link towns in the middle of the county. Snowmobilers wanted it, too, as a safe way to get under the Northway in Malta.

In 1992, the county first applied for a federal grant and got denied. And the same thing happened the next year. And the following year, too. Frustration, if not discouragement, grew.

Zimri Smith of Saratoga Springs was a member of the county trails committee, and shortly after his death in 1994 committee members began calling their plan the “Zim Smith Trail.” The name has stuck.

Malta officials got tired of waiting for federal funding, and in 1998 and again in 2001 they paved sections of the trail through that town, using their own money.

Then, in 2002, a $686,400 federal transportation grant was awarded.

I’m embarrassed at how many stories I wrote in the next couple of years saying construction was about to start, because it didn’t. The path was pretty overgrown, and county employees, prison crews and town workers were out there intermittently, picking through the weeds and brush. By 2006, work was actually ready to start, but the cost had risen, plans for the Round Lake Bypass complicated planning and waiting for construction of a new county water line in the same right-of-way meant more delays.

In 2007, the 3.3 miles from Round Lake to Coon’s Crossing finally got built, but the northern end of the trail waited until after the water line was installed in 2009. That had its benefits, though — the $67 million water project paid for the needed bridge across the Mourning Kill, which otherwise was going to break the trail project’s piggy bank.

By last year, the county had also concluded a multi-year negotiation with CP Rail with an agreement allowing the trail between Oak Street and Zepko Lane just south of Ballston Spa if a tall fence were built separating the trail from the railroad tracks.

A $659,000 contract for the last piece of trail was awarded by the county a year ago, and the work was finally done this past construction season, wrapping up just in the past couple of weeks. The trail and the tall black steel fence along the tracks are there.

Although the trail isn’t officially open, joggers and others have already found it, I noticed on Thursday. Such word spreads fast.

The trail is a welcome addition to the county’s quality of life infrastructure, but this won’t be the end. Advocates want it to extend it someday right on through to Saratoga Springs and on the south to Mechanicville and scenic routes 4 and 32. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a whole generation this time.

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