The state will allow Adirondack Scenic Railroad to run its tourist trains for just one more season on the tracks between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, according to a final proposal by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and state Department of Transportation.
In the proposal, released last week, the departments are sticking with their original plan to remove 34 miles of track between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake – the north end of a 119-mile rail corridor owned by the state.
For several years, Adirondack Scenic Railroad has operated tourist trains seasonally on the nine miles of track between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. If the state’s proposal is implemented, those tracks will be removed. The railroad could continue to operate trains on the southern end of the rail corridor, in the Old Forge region, but it would have to compete for the right to use the line.
The proposal calls for rehabilitation of 45 miles of track north of Big Moose, which would allow trains to travel from Utica to Tupper Lake. Once that work is done, the state intends to solicit proposals from railroad companies to run the line. Thus, it is not certain who the operator will be. In the meantime, Adirondack Scenic Railroad could continue to operate south of Tupper Lake.
The Adirondack Park Agency is scheduled to discuss the proposal at its monthly meeting on Thursday. The APA board must decide whether the proposal conforms to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.
APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the board will not be making its decision this week. Rather, it will consider soliciting public comments on the question of conformance with the master plan. He added that the agency is not planning to hold public hearings.
DEC and DOT held numerous public meetings over the past few years to gather public input, and they received thousands of comments. Railroad boosters wanted all the tracks fixed up so trains could travel from Utica to Lake Placid. Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates pushed to have the tracks removed between Big Moose and Lake Placid. This would create a 79-mile trail for biking, hiking, and snowmobiling but allow the railroad to continue operating its more profitable trains at the southern end of the line. The state’s proposal is seen as a compromise and remains unchanged in its essentials since first released in 2013.
Many people urged the state to keep the tracks and build a trail beside them. The Trails with Rails Action Committee (TRAC) submitted maps and plans purporting to show where trails could parallel the tracks and, where that is not feasible, where spur trails could leave and re-enter the rail corridor.
DEC and DOT concluded that TRAC’s proposal is not realistic. For starters, the departments said TRAC’s spur trails – which would be similar to hiking trails in other parts of the Adirondacks – would not meet the goal of establishing a graded trail that could be used by road bikes, baby strollers, wheelchairs, and snowmobiles.
In its final document, the departments raised a number of legal and practical problems with TRAC’s proposal. Among other things, the trails would require filling in wetlands, run afoul of Forest Preserve regulations, and cross private land. TRAC’s plan also calls for users to travel along the shoulders of highways for stretches, raising safety concerns.
Historic Saranac Lake, Adirondack Architectural Heritage, Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, Rail Explorers USA, and the Trails with Rails Action Committee sponsored a rally at the Saranac Lake depot in favor of preserving the rails. The corridor, which stretches from Remsen, north of Utica, to Lake Placid, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Historic Saranac Lake contends that the state has failed to take the historical status of the corridor fully into account.
In their final proposal, DEC and DOT say they have been consulting with the State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation about preserving the corridor’s past. The departments envision rehabilitating old depots and other buildings in the corridor (some to be used as warming huts) and installing educational signs.
This year has seen the successful startup of a new business, Rail Explorers USA, on the corridor. Rail Explorers offers trips in pedal-powered rail carts on six miles of track between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear. DEC and DOT say the success of Rail Explorers is not a reason to abandon the plans for removing tracks for a recreational trail.
“The initial popularity of railbikes is a welcome sign to how popular a multiple use recreational trail is likely to be,” the final proposal states. “While this entrepreneurial use of the Corridor is to be commended, it is still not the best public use of the Corridor.”
The departments note that Rail Explorers offer one-way trips four times a day in season, for a fee, whereas a recreational trail would be open for public use year-round and any hour of the day, for free. The agencies suggest that Rail Explorers could relocate to the corridor south of Tupper Lake.
“Additionally, multiple other local businesses stand to benefit with implementation of the trail. For example, there should be an increase in demand for ski and bicycle rentals,” the proposal asserts.
In a transition plan for the corridor, the departments say rail service north of Tupper Lake will not end until November 20, 2016, after the APA approves the proposal, which would amend the corridors management plan. The document does not say when work would begin on removing the rails and building the trail.
Photo by Susan Bibeau: Adirondack Scenic Railroad train approaches Saranac Lake.
NOTE: This story has been corrected to include all the sponsors of Saturday’s rally to support the rails.