BOB CONFER: Let’s make the Somerset rail trail a reality for Niagara County

Bob Confer

Standing like a sentinel on our north shore watching over Lake Ontario is what used to be the Somerset power project. It once provided well-paying jobs to 100 families and it produced megawatts of electricity like they were going out of style. It came to be that the plant’s means of power generation, coal, did go out of style as federal and state mandates forced its closure. The plant was decommissioned in March 2020.

Since the announcement of its demise, local and state officials have worked to find businesses to take over the property, a means to put the structures and local residents to work. Some ideas kicked around were mining of digital currency and development of call and data centers.

One thing that hasn’t been looked after with similar vigor by political power brokers since the plant's closure (it probably didn’t help that the Covid crisis struck) is the future of the rail line that once fed coal cars to the plant.

Somerset Railroad Corporation (SRC) managed 13.4 miles of track that ran from the busy rail spur in the city of Lockport northward through the towns of Lockport and Newfane and then eastward into Somerset. This past October, SRC submitted an application to the federal government’s Surface Transportation Board requesting to abandon that line since it has no other purpose . It served only the power plant; there are no other clients or stops along the line. SRC has said it will salvage the tracks, rail ties and other materials while leaving the bridges intact (there are bridges over Red Creek, Eighteen Mile Creek and Routes 78 and 18).

By SRC committing to clean the infrastructure right to the rail bed while leaving the bridges, the opportunity is ripe for an awesome rail trail in Niagara County.

There are dozens of rail trails across the state where former railroad rights-of-way have been converted to public trails. They are multi-use; most are designated for walkers, runners and cyclists, but some are open to snowmobile traffic. Depending on the trail, the town, county or state, as well as volunteer organizations, have assumed management. They are typically gravel or grass although some are a little more elaborate, like the 3.3 miles in the town of Pendleton that was paved.

These trails make for excellent public assets. Two fine examples that I frequent are the TOBIE Trail in the central Adirondacks and the WAG Trail in Allegany County.

The Thendara-Old Forge-Big Moose-Inlet-Eagle Bay Trail connects those communities. It was the site of a former railroad that was built in the 1880s to serve camps in the area and get tourists to destinations throughout the Fulton Chain of Lakes. It became obsolete in the age of the automobile, meeting its demise in 1929. The wonderful mostly-gravel trail came to be not long ago and covers 16 miles, passing along and through state forests and the quaint host communities. When I hike it every day of my annual summer vacation I encounter many people enjoying the TOBIE, but their numbers are dwarfed by the number of snowmobilers who use it all winter and pump millions of dollars into the local economy with stops at bars and restaurants and stays at hotels and rentals.

Closer to home is the trail that traverses the old Wellsville-Addison-Galeton line, which was built in 1895 and was in service until 1979. The grass-and-stone trail is 9 miles long and is in the center of the Genesee River valley, affording users access to world-class fishing and excellent birdwatching in agricultural and forested environments. Some businesses have benefited from the presence of the trail, from campgrounds and restaurants to the WAG Trail Inn which operates a treehouse (yes, treehouse) bed and breakfast across the street from the trail.

You see, the benefits of rail trails are as multi-faceted as the trails themselves. They provide access to the outdoors — and the physical, mental and spiritual health that comes with it— while also providing potential for significant economic development.

Niagara County and New York State shouldn’t pass up the opportunity before us. Since SRC has filed for abandonment, any public agency can put in a railbanking request to the Surface Transportation Board. Congress granted that power in 1983 as an amendment to the National Trails System Act. The government, whether it’s our county or state, need only submit a request along with a Statement of Willingness to Assume Financial Responsibility (not unexpected when transforming this into a public asset).

I encourage local and state officials to act soon. I also suggest that interested parties — conservancy groups, Chambers of Commerce, the Niagara Wine Trail, small businesses, snowmobile clubs — contact their legislators. Almost 14 miles of trail right through the heart of Niagara could benefit all of us.

Know that it will take time to make a rail trail. There’s a lot to do: Governments would have to agree to funding and maintenance; the federal government would have to give approval; Somerset Railroad Corporation has to remove the line; local officials would have to secure trail access points and much more. But, if we all get on board and start the engine now, this vision could become a reality 15 or 20 years down the line, paving the way for improved quality-of-life for future generations.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.

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