ALBANY - Five months ago there appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel for a decades-long debate over whether to repair railroad tracks running through the Adirondack Mountains or rip them up in favor of a 90-mile biking, hiking and snowmobiling trail. But the state steamed right through a year-end target for a decision.
Now, backers of the proposed trail are frustrated at the Cuomo administration's slow pace making a decision on whether to open a review needed to move the plan forward, while rail supporters believe the state has already decided what to do.
The issue centers on the state-owned rail bed running from Old Forge northeast to Lake Placid. The departments of transportation and environmental conservation held a series of public hearings and said in September a decision would likely come by the end of 2013.
But the agencies still haven't decided whether to do a review of the rail corridor's 1996 management plan, which called for letting a scenic railroad operate for five years and then review its success. Trail advocates say an influential state senator is holding things up, but train proponents believe the agencies have come to a decision and aren't ready to publicly discuss the highly charged issue.
"Presentations were made six or eight weeks ago by senior DOT and DEC staff to the commissioners," said Bill Branson, board president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society. "I think if the people making the decisions had a way to appease the trail advocates and keep the railroad, they'd do that."
The society, which runs the scenic railroad at the northern and southern ends of the corridor, is pushing what it calls a compromise plan that would have the state spend about $17 million to restore the rotting tracks on the central 70 miles of the 120-mile corridor and build a trail next to the tracks. In areas where the tracks go over a narrow causeway or bridge, the trail would be rerouted through surrounding forest and eventually rejoin the rail bed.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, a group launched in 2011 to promote the trail alternative, contends that the cost of restoring the tracks would be closer to $50 million and it's not feasible to build a trail beside the rails. It has its own rail-with-trail compromise - keep the tracks on the southern end and put a trail on the north end.
"We're compromising in that we'll support the railroad between Utica and Old Forge," where the tourist train already operates, said Dick Beamish, publisher of the Adirondack Explorer monthly newsmagazine and a member of the trail group. "We want a rail trail from Old Forge north to Lake Placid."
"We're not talking about mountain bike trails," he said. "We're talking about rail trails that connect communities, that people can walk or ride bikes on."
Rail trails, which are more like single-lane roads than footpaths, are major tourist destinations in other parts of the country. "Our studies show there would be hundreds of thousands of visitors who would be drawn specifically for the bike trail," Beamish said.
The railroad reports carrying 33,500 passengers on the Utica to Old Forge segment in 2012. If the tracks are refurbished to Lake Placid, the railroad's management plan predicts ridership will increase to more than 90,000 a year, with ticket sales of almost $2 million.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates has gathered more than 12,000 individual signatures and more than 400 from businesses on a petition for a trail. A dozen municipalities along the corridor have passed resolutions asking the state to reopen the rail corridor management plan to determine the best use for it, or to skip the review and just rip up the rails.
Rail advocates counter that it would be foolish to abandon rail access that may be needed for freight and passenger transport in the future as fuel becomes more costly and scarce.
The trail group is waging a letter-writing campaign in local newspapers targeting state Sen. Betty Little, who represents the region, saying she's stalling action because she's allied with train advocates, who don't want the state agencies to revisit the corridor's management plan. Little said she believes both sides have merit.
"This is the only rail line through the center of the Adirondacks, and I fear that once it's removed, it will never be there again," Little said. "But I'm not holding up the decision in anyway whatsoever."
Spokesmen for DOT and DEC refused to speak about the issue, but each provided a brief email statement saying the agencies are continuing to work toward a final decision on whether to open the management plan.
"Some of us have waited 40 years for this to happen," said Beamish, who's planning a trip with his wife to a rail trail in Virginia. "If it takes a few more years, so be it."