Communication and crime are issues on Adirondack Rail Trail
SARANAC LAKE — As work on the Adirondack Rail Trail continues through the summer, the state recently met with local business owners, neighbors of the trail and recreation advocates to discuss their hopes and plans for the 34-mile trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake, the first section of which is scheduled for completion later this year.
Members of the public requested better communication with the state, expedited installation of signs pointing trail users to businesses and the removal of some fences on unofficial exits which were installed last week.
Everyone involved said they are hoping that after the trail opens to the public, it will cut down on crime along the corridor.
Adirondack Rail Trail Association Executive Director Brian Woods said the Wednesday, Aug. 23 meeting with the state Department of Environmental Conservation at the Adirondack Park Agency headquarters in Ray Brook was “a start.”
“Even I learned several things that day,” Woods said.
But he still wants more communication. He wants the DEC to be more “proactive” in communicating with his group, municipalities and businesses before decisions are made. The trail is about tying communities together, he said, and that includes the people, businesses and homeowners along the corridor.
“We’re excited that communication has restarted,” Woods said. “But we certainly think that there needs to be some changes in implementation.”
He said there has not been much “transparency,” and that has left a “bad taste” in some folks’ mouths. He said he wants this improved before Phases 2 and 3.
Kubricky Construction is expected to complete the $7.9 million Phase 1 — Lake Placid to Saranac Lake — by the end of the year.
Rifenburg Construction has picked up the $8.75 million contract for work on Phase 2 — between Saranac Lake and Floodwood Road in Santa Clara.
Phase 3 of construction — from Floodwood to the Tupper Lake train station — is expected to start in the fall 2024 and finish in the fall 2025. This portion of the project is expected to go out for bid in January.
DEC spokeswoman Erin Hanczyk said she is planning to hold more meetings like the one last week. She expects the next will come after the bid for Phase 3 is awarded. This phase goes out to bid in January.
Woods said he would rather signage not be an afterthought after the trail is already built. If the rail trail is a tourism draw but doesn’t have the signs to bring users to businesses or doesn’t have the bike racks and bathrooms to keep users happy and coming back, he said they would be setting themselves up for failure, what would amount to a “false start.”
Hanczyk said the DEC’s goal is to add signage as the trail gets completed.
“The goal is definitely to have those progress with the trail and not wait for it to be complete,” she said. “Even those larger interpretive signs, we’re hoping to have ready for the trail completion.”
Currently, the DEC is planning to add wayfinding and emergency signs as part of Phase 3, Hanczyk said, including some coming before the approaching snowmobile season.
There is an unofficial “Phase 4” which includes interpretive signage, signs for local businesses and amenities. Hanczyk said signage committees for these secondary signs are in the works. Woods said he hopes ARTA is asked to be involved in these committees.
Woods said ARTA is projecting the trail will get 200,000 uses in a year, bringing $20 million in new spending around the communities.
Chrissie Wais, who co-owns the Belvedere Restaurant in Saranac Lake, built a “social ramp” off the trail to her parking lot with signs pointing users to the restaurant. But last week the state installed a fence blocking off the ramp.
The state deemed the embankment to be too steep and a safety hazard, Woods said.
Hanczyk said DEC staff followed up with Wais after she brought up the issue on Wednesday, and they are now talking to potentially work something out.
On Monday, Aug. 28, Wais said she was encouraged by their talk and she looks forward to working with the DEC.
Back when the rail trail was still being debated across the Adirondacks, the train tracks through towns were a magnet for criminal activity — underage people drinking, drug use and vandalism, including racist graffiti. Since the tracks have been removed, Lt. Forest Ranger Megan Lapierre said there’s a new type of crime they’re dealing with — unauthorized motorized vehicle use. People have been riding dirt bikes and ATVs on the trail, which is prohibited. She said this has mostly been on the portion of the trail that enters Tupper Lake, which is still unfinished.
Lapierre said there is unauthorized motorized vehicle use all over state lands, but they’ve been writing them on the rail trail since the tracks were taken up, making it easier to ride. Lapierre said these tickets are moving violations. They carry fines of up to $250, plus court fees. The total is up to the judge. Hanczyk said these tickets have held up in courts.
The rail trail runs through five ranger zones. Lapierre said every ranger in the zones is taking turns patrolling. There are nine forest rangers in her zone, which hold the majority of the trail. Hanczyk said rangers are patrolling the trail between their other job duties, and for now, they can only patrol on foot. But she said they are hoping to be able to patrol on ATVs in the future.
“Realistically, the only thing that’s going to completely curtail that is the presence of the public in large numbers on the trail,” Woods said.
But he also said ARTA needs to work on education, and the state needs to work on enforcement. And ultimately, its up to the public to take care of safety on the trail.
When winter rolls around and snowmobilers are let onto the trail, he said safety will be a big concern for everyone involved. This will be first winter with the first 9-mile section of the trail fully constructed.
Snowmobilers want to be safe from automobiles as they cross roads, and skiers and snowshoers want to be safe on the trail they share with snowmobiles. Woods said safety responsibility extends both ways, and it’s up to everyone to maintain safety. Woods also said there needs to be responsibility around snowmobile speed and alcohol consumption.
In May, two men from Tupper Lake and Piercefield were charged with breaking into camps along the rail trail. Lapierre said Michael DeRosia and Ethan Bush were allegedly using ATVs to ride down the trail and find camps. These break-ins were an isolated incident, she said.
“I am hopeful, as well as everybody else, that once we start getting more use on it it will help to deter some of that behavior,” Lapierre said.
Lapierre said there’s been some graffiti on the trail by North Country Community College, but it was on a lower layer and is getting paved over. She said she hopes it doesn’t continue once the trail is finished.
Public use during construction
DEC is urging the public to refrain from using any portion of the trail while it is closed for construction. This includes the corridor between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, and the corridor between Saranac Lake and Floodwood Road. The portion between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake is expected to reopen in the late fall after Phase 1 is complete. There is an expected “winter shutdown” of work between Saranac Lake and Floodwood Road from Dec. 18, 2023 to March 31, 2024. This phase is scheduled to be finished in October, 2024.
The trail in Tupper Lake is open for “interim recreation … at users’ own risk.” This portion has not been improved yet.
“Public use may be limited or restricted in sections due to hazardous conditions or active construction or maintenance,” according to a DEC news release.
Work has also started at the Saranac Lake’s Union Depot parking lot.
The state is paving a 2.6-mile stretch of the trail through the village of Saranac Lake with asphalt. The rest of the trail is finished with crushed stone.
Updates can be found on the Adirondack Rail Trail webpage at dec.ny.gov/lands/124911.html and dec.ny.gov/lands/62816.html.