To the editor:
Sharon O'Brien's recent letter, "Rail with trail promotes recreation and accessibility," (Dec. 16 LPN) requires a response.
Sharon favors the continuation of the tourist train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, combined with the construction of a parallel recreation trail over the nine miles between the two villages. "The new recreation path will," she wrote, "retain access to nature observation for people with mobility challenges, as well as families with small children and senior citizens."
There's no doubt that a multi-use trail connecting our communities would provide much-needed access for handicapped persons. But why build a separate trail, as Sharon proposes? The rail bed itself is ideally suited for this purpose, and the conversion from rail-to-trail could be accomplished at relatively little cost. With the tracks removed and the bed smoothly surfaced, this path would be perfect for electric powered or self-propelled wheelchairs. It would provide safe, easy, free access to the Adirondack backcountry for handicapped users, who would also retain a valued sense of independence.
There's a serious problem with Sharon's idea of building a trail next to the rail line, quite aside from the high cost and environmental disruption. Putting a separate trail alongside the tracks between Placid and Saranac would allow the tourist train to continue operating indefinitely on this small, end section of a travel corridor that goes through the heart of the Adirondacks. The train operators require that the tracks be kept in place over the entire length of the line, which enables them to move their rolling stock to Utica in the fall to be serviced and stored, then back to Lake Placid in the spring. This, in turn, prevents conversion of the rail bed into a recreation trail from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake and on to Old Forge.
By allowing the train to continue to monopolize the road bed, we will lose the opportunity to create a 90-mile trail for bicyclists, joggers, strollers, birders, athletes in training, handicapped persons, and snowmobilers in season. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of visitors who would spend millions of dollars in the Tri-Lakes region!
So why not extend the train from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake and build a separate recreation trail at least that far? Because extending the train service by 25 miles to Tupper would be a major expense at a time when funding is in short supply, and because the economic benefits of a much longer train ride are highly doubtful. As for building a parallel recreation trail between Saranac and Tupper in the railroad right-of-way, forget it. Even if environmental regulations were dispensed with, widening the corridor from 8 to 20 feet to would require dumping tons of fill, at vast expense, into lakes and wetlands.
The operators of the Lake Placid-Saranac railroad deserve credit for their dedication and perseverance. They have given the tourist train a true test over the past eleven years. But the conclusion is inescapable: the hoped-for economic benefits have not materialized. It is time now to move on to Plan B - to salvage the tracks and replace them with the Great Adirondack Recreation Trail.
Dick Beamish, Saranac Lake
Founding member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA)