ALBANY — The idea of bicycling continuously from Buffalo to the southern tip of Manhattan or the northern tip of Lake Champlain might seem extreme, but bicycle tourism is growing, and the day is coming when such trips will be possible.
Groundwork is being laid for the Empire State Trail, a $200 million state project that would extend a conglomeration of bike trails into a continuous 750-mile system with both off-road and on-road segments.
The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation last month released a draft plan for the trail system, the first concrete sign of progress since plans were approved in April as part of the state budget. The general location of the trails that will make up the system has been determined, though the details must still be finalized.
"Over the next several months, New York state will work with elected and local officials, transportation experts and bicycling and trail organizations to finalize the exact trail route, with a particular focus on on-road sections where there are multiple options for passing through cities, villages and rural roads," according to the plan summary.
The plan was included in the state budget after Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed it during state budget remarks in January.
Parks & Trails New York, an advocacy group in Albany, has been pushing for years to expand the state's trail system, and Executive Director Robin Dropkin said she believes the promised improvements will happen.
"To complete it, I think, is really going to be a game-changer for New York state," she said. "It is going to be easily the longest trail system in the country."
While most people will likely cycle or hike only short sections of the trail, Dropkin said they will have the feeling of being part of something larger — much like people who hike parts of the Appalachian or Northville-Lake Placid trails.
A study released earlier this summer by the Capital District Transportation Committee estimated that the trail system in the Capital District draws about 1.6 million visitors annually. The busiest single spot is Lock 7 on the Mohawk-Hudson trail in Niskayuna, with more than 250,000 visitors per year. The Mohawk-Hudson trail would become part of the new system, drawing more visitors who would spend money locally, according to trail advocates.
"If it's really promoted through I Love New York, I think it can really take off," Dropkin said.
About 400 miles of the trail already exist — most notably as the Erie Canalway Trail that runs from Buffalo to Albany along the old Erie Canal — though with several gaps, including one of several miles between Amsterdam and Rotterdam Junction.
The draft plan estimates that 40 construction projects will be involved, from major new construction in the Hudson Valley to closing gaps between trail systems that exist because of engineering challenges — stream crossings, or a need for safe railroad or highway crossings, for instance. In some places, the new trail will run along roads, though the plan calls for the use — as much as possible — of low-traffic county roads rather than state highways.
State agencies expected to be involved include the Department of Transportation, Parks and Recreation, the Canal Corp., the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Hudson River Valley Greenway, which will be responsible for building a trail through Columbia and Rensselaer counties, between the cities of Hudson and Rensselaer.
The plan is supposed to be finalized in the fall, allowing the state to start construction in 2018. The entire system is expected to be complete in 2020.
During the review, questions can be addressed to the Hudson River Valley Greenway Office, 625 Broadway, Albany NY 12207-2995, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 518-473-3835.