ROTTERDAM -- A new 5-mile section of the Erie Canalway Trail between Amsterdam and the Rotterdam hamlet of Pattersonville opened Wednesday, filling most of a long-standing gap in the trail between Amsterdam and Rotterdam Junction.
The new section is on a former railroad bed owned by the state and is entirely off-road. It is the latest addition to the Empire State Trail, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's initiative to build a 750-mile recreation trail across the entire state.
The construction eliminated a gap that forced cyclists to ride on the shoulder of Route 5S, a busy high-speed road, if they wanted to get between south Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
Work on the $1.75 million project began in the spring, under a state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation contract. The section includes about 4 miles of 10-foot-wide trail in the Montgomery County town of Florida and a mile in Rotterdam. A new trailhead parking lot was built in Pattersonville.
The Canalway Trail, with some remaining gaps, extends mostly off-road from Buffalo to Albany. Riders will now be able to go from Pattersonville to past Little Falls -- a distance of more than 50 miles -- without riding on a roadway, except at crossings.
"The Erie Canalway Trail already generated a lot of bicycle tourism, as well as local residents walking," said Andy Beers, executive director of the Empire State Trail. "What we know is that off-road trails generate more use than on-road trails."
Some enthusiasts have biked the new paved trail in recent weeks, even though it wasn't officially open. It passes through woods, along rock cuts, crosses two streams on newly built bridges, and also briefly passes through the gravel operations of Cranesville Block, including the historic "white station" power plant along the Mohawk River.
"It's beautiful out there. I think people are going to be very happy," said Joseph Pafundi of Saratoga Springs, the trail's first official rider shortly after a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Pattersonville trailhead, located on the north side of Route 5S, opposite Scotch Church Road.
Pafundi planned to ride the entire trail between Buffalo and Amsterdam, though in short sections rather than all at once. He rode in the Rochester area earlier this summer and was planning to ride to Fonda or further on Wednesday.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for people in the area to see scenery and history and stay in shape," the College of Saint Rose professor said.
Town and county officials are enthusiastic about the economic potential of the statewide trail, as it continues to develop. In addition to bicyclists, such trails typically attract dog walkers, pedestrians and joggers.
"When we're out promoting Montgomery County and talking about the wonderful things to do there, this is front and center," said Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort.
"I think it's terrific," said Rotterdam Town Supervisor Steven Tommasone. "These things bring more people to town, and that brings more business to town."
The trail sections in Montgomery County will be open to snowmobilers during the winter, in keeping with a county policy.
The opening of the new section still leaves a gap of roughly 2 miles between Pattersonville and Rotterdam Junction, where the trail will need to cross two active railroad lines. Beers said plans to close that gap, which were the subject of a public meeting in June, are proceeding.
"Planning is moving along," Beers said. "[The state Department of Transportation] is doing the planning, and it's still scheduled for 2020 because of the complexity and the design. The plan is to tunnel under the railways, and they will be tunneling under active railways."
Once those rail tunnels open, cyclists will be able to ride to Schenectady before needing to ride on a roadway again.
The section is one of the first new projects to be completed under the Empire State Trail initiative, which was launched in 2016. It will link the state east-west, from Buffalo to Albany, and north-south, from Manhattan to the Canadian border. Most of the trail will be off-road, with large on-road sections in the Hudson Valley and through the Champlain Valley. The state's goal is to complete the entire system by the end of 2020.
As completion nears, Beers said the state is planning a new website and other measures to promote the trail system and businesses and historic sites along the trails.
"We've been working toward this vision for nearly 30 years," said Dylan Carey, project coordinator for Parks & Trails New York, a private non-profit advocacy group in Albany.