The state's decision to reopen the unit management plan for the hotly contested Adirondack railroad corridor, announced July 9, continues to reverberate throughout the region.
State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald, one of the key players in the decision to reopen the plan, said July 10 that she believes the proposal the state has crafted for the 119-mile Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor "makes a lot of sense."
However, McDonald cautioned that there are "no forgone conclusions" about revising the management plan.
Adirondack Scenic Railroad train at the Lake Placid depot
(News photo — Andy Flynn)
"We see this as a viable alternative, but we also think it's important that we reopen the UMP process and get public input through that process," she said.
The state has proposed converting the Adirondack railroad corridor between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid to a multi-use recreational trail while boosting rail service along the rest of the corridor as far north as Tupper Lake. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad currently operates summer tourist train rides between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid and in the Old Forge area.
Following a series of public meetings last fall, state DOT and Department of Environmental Conservation officials said they expected to make a decision on reopening the UMP by the end of 2013. Why did it take another seven-plus months?
"This is not an easy decision that we have before us, so we wanted to make sure that we fleshed it out and looked at various alternatives," McDonald said. "We didn't take this decision lightly. That's why it took longer than we initially anticipated."
The state could have just decided to announce that it was reopening the UMP. Instead the DOT and DEC, which jointly manage the corridor, floated a proposal to evaluate use of the Tupper Lake to Lake Placid segment for a recreational trail while examining opportunities to "maintain and realize the full economic potential of rail service on the remainder of the corridor." The state also said it would look at options to create alternative snowmobile corridors between Old Forge and Tupper Lake using state and conservation easement lands.
Why come out with that concept now, before the UMP process has even started?
"Because from our perspective, even though there's no forgone conclusions, we thought the Tupper Lake to Lake Placid stretch makes sense from a trail perspective because there's a lot of recreational traffic in that section, and we think that making a solid investment on the rail side, basically from Big Moose to Tupper Lake, makes a lot of sense," McDonald said. "Last November, Commissioner Martens and I took a rail/high-rail trip all the way up. We saw some of the challenges up, both from the trail and rail perspective, and we thought putting those two out there made a lot of sense."
Asked if there were other options the state considered, such as a longer recreation trail or rail service on the length of the corridor, McDonald said, "No, but that's why we're going to go through the scoping process and see what the public has to say."
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs the Adirondack Scenic Railroad's tourist trains at both ends of the corridor, has said its success has been hampered the state's failure to provide it with a multi-year lease and upgrade the railroad tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake. McDonald said she's heard those complaints often.
"What we've heard from our rail partners is the uncertainty has hurt them in making capital investment," McDonald said. "By looking at that piece between Big Moose and Tupper Lake, we're hoping to bring some certainty to that."
McDonald said it would take a "significant investment" to upgrade the railroad tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake for regular rail service. Asked how that work could be funded, McDonald named various competitive rail programs, the state's economic development council process and federal sources.
"We don't know what those costs are, but I think we're very open to working with the railroad to see how those investments would be made," she said.
"I think it's a first step in the right direction," said Joe Mercurio of Saranac Lake, president of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.
ARTA has pushed the state to replace the rails between Lake Placid and Old Forge with a 90-mile recreational trail for biking, hiking, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. "Obviously we were thinking long-term, long-range and the whole 90 miles, and we haven't by any means given up on that. I got a feeling this was a compromise on the part of DEC and DOT, and the various interests: us being one of them and the railroad die-hards being the others," he said.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society wants the state to restore the tracks along the corridor for passenger and freight service and build a recreational trail next to the tracks, where feasible, and reroute it through surrounding forest in areas where the corridor is too narrow.
The group had argued against reopening the UMP. ARPS had a mixed response to the July 9 announcement.
"While ARPS applauds the state for having taken both a balanced and objective approach to the review process, this organization as well as constituents from the Mohawk Valley to the High Peaks remain eager for resolution regarding the remainder of the corridor, between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid," ARPS Executive Director Bethan Maher said in a press release. "The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society is confident that New York State will uphold the original UMP decision, retaining and rehabilitating rail infrastructure over the entire length of the corridor, recognizing that this is not and should not be an 'either-or' proposition. .... Furthermore, we are excited that New York State has committed itself to renewed investment in rail infrastructure and will work towards making rail service fully functional."
In 2012, almost all towns and villages along the railroad corridor passed resolutions calling on the state to either remove the tracks or reopen the UMP.
Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall said the state's decision was the appropriate one.
"This is what I thought a year ago should have happened," Randall said.
In the long run, Randall said a trail is "the logical next step" and that ultimately there will be recreational uses for that part of the corridor. He said the community needs to discuss the issues more. Both the Lake Placid village and town of North Elba boards have voted in favor of a trail.
"I think our communities recognize that outdoor recreation is very valuable," Randall said.
Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau said July 10 that he's happy the state agreed to update the UMP. His board, and many other local governments along the corridor, had asked the state to reopen the plan more than a year and a half ago.
Rabideau said there's "some wisdom" in the proposal DOT and DEC are pitching for the corridor, but he said he'd rather see the opposite take place.
"The section (of rail) between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake should be left in place because the trail is already approved with the rail in that section only, and (the train) does give our downtown and village a bump during the tourism season," Rabideau said. "The rest of it, I could be convinced to make it a trail only."
The town of North Elba had pursued plans for a rail-side trail between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid for more than 10 years, but town officials abandoned the plan in September 2013 due to what they said were mounting engineering costs and a complicated and lengthy review process.
Tupper Lake village Mayor Paul Maroun has publicly supported keeping the rails in place along the corridor, and that hasn't changed. The crux of Maroun's argument is that the state would never agree to replace the tracks if they were removed.
Maroun agrees that increasing snowmobile access to Tupper Lake would be good for the economy there, but he's afraid that, once the tracks are gone, environmental groups would step in and try to keep snowmobilers from traveling through wilderness areas that flank the corridor.
Maroun said he wants the state to commit to upgrading the tracks. He said that would make the Adirondack Scenic Railroad more viable.