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Franklin County legislature calls for rails with trails

February 4, 2016

The Franklin County Board of Legislators added its voice to the rail/trail debate Thursday by unanimously resolving that it supports keeping and upgrading the rail line.

The seven-member legislature, which meets in Malone, also called for adding a parallel trail to the state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor, as recommended in a 1996 unit management plan. The two-sentence resolution said "these investments will enhance current and future economic and recreation opportunities in the communities along the corridor."

This is the second local government body recently to come out in favor of the keeping the train running. The Harrietstown Town Council voted for a resolution in favor of the rails at its December meeting following a presentation by Rail Explorers, a private enterprise that operates a rail bike business on 6 miles of the tracks between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear Junction. The Franklin County Legislature also had a presentation from Rail Explorers about a month ago, according to Vice Chairman Gordon Crossman, D-Malone.

Article Photos

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad rolls through Saranac Lake in October 2015.
(News photo — Lou Reuter)

"(I like) the idea of the combination of the both the rails and the trails, (because) once you take out the rails, you don't get them back," Crossman said.

In previous years, eight local government bodies passed resolutions calling for the opposite: asking the state to remove the tracks in the corridor between Lake Placid and the Old Forge area and to replace them with a multi-use trail. The boards of St. Lawrence County, the villages of Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, and the towns of North Elba, Tupper Lake, Piercefield, Colton and Harrietstown - although the latter has since reversed its decision - as well as the New York State Snowmobile Association made these votes after Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, a group that supports replacing the rails with a trail, made a series of presentations asking them to do so. Three other municipalities - the village of Saranac Lake and the towns of Santa Clara and Webb - as well as the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce instead asked the state to look into re-examining the 1996 UMP, which also went against railroad advocates' wishes. The state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation did reopen the UMP, and the result was a 2014 proposal to replace the tracks with a trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, and to upgrade the rails as far north as Tupper Lake. The state Adirondack Park Agency is reviewing that plan, which some call a compromise, and may decide on it at its meeting Thursday, Feb. 11.

The plan had been on the table for a year when Rail Explorers opened this past summer. Its vehicles proved to be a big success, and the owners say they sold more than 11,000 one-way trips, charging up to $25 apiece. They plan to expand their operation and raise prices this summer.

Crossman said the rail bikes are "quite unique and they looked like a lot of fun. They talked about how they could be used for training by the athletes in Lake Placid, and also the idea that maybe for rehabilitation" by physical therapy patients.

"That's what swayed us," Crossman added.

It's unclear how many athletes in training would use the easy-to-pedal rail bikes, which leave in rows at designated times. Four local Olympic biathletes - Lowell Bailey, Tim Burke, Annelies Cook and Haley Johnson Stewart - have publicly endorsed replacing the tracks and appeared in testimonial ads for ARTA.

Crossman also said the summer and fall train rides between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid are "kind of a very nice attraction. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad has offered these since fall 2000.

ARTA board Chairman Joe Mercurio, of Saranac Lake, said the Franklin County and Harrietstown resolutions are largely political theater.

"At this stage of the game, some of the stuff that's going on is purely political," Mercurio said. "I think that the people who are supporters of the railroad are very politically connected and they're very embedded and they're pulling out all the stops in a last-ditch effort to undermine the state's decision."

"I think the bottom line is, it's time to pick up the compromise and move forward."

"We'd love to have the whole 90 miles, they'd love to have the whole 90 miles. But that's not the name of the game," Mercurio said. "This is a compromise, they're actually getting more than half of what they asked for. We're only getting about a third of what we asked for."

He also said having both a trail and a railroad side by side is "pie in the sky. It's absurd. There's no way we can have both. ... It's a red herring.

"Anyone who looks into it should know better."

A trail alongside the tracks exists for a short stretch in the village of Saranac Lake, and an APA-approved plan to put one all the way to Lake Placid was dropped by the town of North Elba after the Army Corps of Engineers raised issues with it. Between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, narrow causeways and other shoreline issues obstruct a side-by-side trail and track, but a group called Trails with Rails Action Committee has developed a plan for a trail that sticks with the railroad in some areas and veers away from it in others. TRAC members were unhappy that state officials decided against their proposal.



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