Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Community Based Trails And The Rail-Trail Debate

The Adirondack Rail Corridor in Ray Brook (Jack Drury Photo)Is it just us or is there something missing from the discussion of rails and trails? Why is the discussion of trails limited to one rail bed (of many within the park) rather than exploring the larger question of, “What are the trail needs park wide?”

Rather than looking at the rail – trail debate in isolation from the larger issue of creating and enhancing recreational opportunities within the Adirondack Park, we should focus on exploring the idea of an Adirondack Park Community-Based Trail System.

The rail – trail issue can and should only be addressed after we have acknowledged and prioritized our park-wide trail needs. What follows is a vision for such a trail system in the Adirondack Park and, although the process for such an effort needs to be determined and articulated, it is a vision that would benefit the entire Adirondack Park and its communities.

Adirondack Park Community-Based Trail System

Goal:  To create a community-based trail system in the Adirondack Park that will link communities via multi-use trails by utilizing existing trails, the railroad corridor, highway right-of-ways, and newly created trails.

Background: It is estimated that there are over 4,000 miles of different types of trails in the Adirondack Park; however, by and large, these trails are either concentrated in certain areas or haphazard in nature. System is defined as a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole. With few exceptions the park’s trails are not part of a system.

By community-based trails we mean trails that have a number of features:

  1. They allow travel throughout the community to various points in a town or village (e.g., home to grocery store)
  2. They allow travel to scenic and recreational points within or near a community (e.g., hotel to summit of nearby mountain, home to cross-country ski center)
  3. They allow travel between communities and public lands (e.g., community to community, hotel to wilderness area trailhead)
  4. They allow travel from trailhead to trailhead not just to interior destinations (e.g., from trailhead through a wilderness area to another trailhead)
  5. They allow looped trips that don’t require retracing your travel (e.g., rather than a trail that goes to a pond, perhaps it goes around the pond and comes back to the starting point via a different route)
  6. They may be side by side with existing roads and rail corridors or intersecting them
  7. Trails can be accessed locally without the need to get in an automobile

A variety of state agencies and not-for-profit organizations manage, advocate for, and maintain the park’s trails. Most would agree that they are underfunded and lack a comprehensive park-wide vision.

The Adirondack Park Recreation Strategy called for a more comprehensive recreation strategy to, “Establish recreational linkages between communities in the Park… Create a system of destination trails that weave between the regions of the Park…” and “Identify and develop recreational opportunities within communities.” In addition it suggested that “… a dedicated fund devoted to maintaining recreation infrastructure” be established.

The reasons for such a system distills down to two fundamental points:

  • It makes good economic sense
  • It improves the quality of life for residents

Possible Next Steps:

  1. Host an Adirondack Park Community-Based Trail System Summit to explore the idea in more depth
  2. Develop a process for gathering public input and collecting data
  3. Develop a plan for the development and implementation of this system.
  4. Explore funding opportunities

Photo: The Adirondack Rail Corridor in Ray Brook (Courtesy Jack Drury).

This post was published first at Broadwing Adventures.

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Jack Drury is co-owner of Leading E.D.G.E., a professional development firm, professor emeritus of North Country Community College having founded the college's Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program and has been an Adirondack guide for 45 years.

18 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Jack, This is a great idea. I think that if you look at some of the Scandinavian countries and the trail systems they have there it is probably a good model. I have only been there using them in the winter for cross country skiing but I imagine that they utilize these trails for summertime activities as well. In the winter in Sweden and Finland (where I have spent most of my time over there) you can go anywhere if you have a pair of skis. You don’t even need to carry food (just some money). They have “lodges” along the way where you can warm up, rest, and refuel! To do this here we would have to make some changes to do it on Forest Preserve land. The trails are nice and wide, most serviced by tracked groomers (that runs like the town plows here) and most are lighted. Of course it gets dark early and the sun comes up late in that part of the world in winter.

  2. Tony Goodwin says:

    Jack has expressed some good ideas about how we might work toward a more rational trail system in the Adirondacks that serves more than just the “peak baggers”. While he sees the rail corridor as something that should remain until all other possibilities have been developed, I firmly believe that the rail corridor, converted to a trail, would be the catalyst for just the sort of community-based trails that Jack envisions.

    First, let’s get over the notion that there can be a trail parallel to the railroad. Yes, there are “rails with trails’ in other parts of the country, but all of them start with a rail line that was originally double-tracked. Expanding the current rail bed would require, in effect, the building of a second rail bed, which includes huge amounts of fill and the necessity of lengthening every culvert so as to maintain drainage with the widened road bed. Environmental considerations aside, this would be a massive, multimillion dollar project – and this on top of the major expense of upgrading the rails.

    The Adirondack Scenic Railroad has had now nearly 20 years to show that it can both support itself and aid the local economy. ASR’s dedicated volunteers have managed to keep the operation going, but they require an annual state subsidy for track maintenance and have no ability to raise private capital for further track upgrades.

    The train’s arrival in Saranac Lake has perhaps generated a bit more traffic in retail stores near the station, but has any store owner actually hired an additional employee to handle this increased traffic? The restaurant closest to the Lake Placid train station has stated that she does not put on any extra staff when the train is running.

    So if the tracks now in place are not helping the economy and are costing the taxpayers money on an ongoing basis, why not remove them and immediately create the linkage that Jack envisions in his trails plan?

    • Paul says:

      Without expanding the rail road to include the entire line it will not have the economic impact that many want to see. A scenic space ship that will take you part way to the moon will have a few interested riders (maybe a decent number at the beginning) but if it doesn’t go all the way to the moon it will never pan out. Upgrade the entire line, it is already under construction. One idea at a time.

      • Matt says:

        Carry this analogy a step further. If I’m not mistaken, space travel tourism is being spearheaded by the private sector, and it’s a huge gamble to say the least. So why doesn’t the private sector step in with some real money to pay to upgrade the rail line from Old Forge to Lake Placid if it’s going to be such a runaway success?

        I’m willing to bet that if some real money did come to the table- not the pullman dog and pony show, the long term lease could become real. However, it’s been two decades and while the small niche of train hobbyist have been pleased by New York’s willingness to entertain them, the real money still hasn’t materialized and the opportunities we are missing are becoming more and more apparent every day. It’s time to try something new.

        Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results…

    • Big Burly says:

      @Mr. Goodwin
      Unfortunately, another disingenuous and misleading intervention.

      As a community advisor during the original UMP proceedings, you should be a more informed commentator.

      The Adirondack Scenic Railroad (ASR) has operated the line under the draconian commercial conditions of a 30-day lease. No business can attract private capital, either via equity or debt in such a circumstance. To have survived and succeeded under this condition should be viewed as quite an achievement.

      NYS as the owner of the right of way (the corridor) reimburses the ASR for maintenance work done to the trackbed and structures on its behalf — it is not a subsidy — instead a repayment, much as many landlords do for tenants. A condition of the present UMP operating option provided for a long-term lease; this is yet to be met.

      As a member of TRAC (Trails and Rails Action Committee) I work with Jack Drury and many other talented residents and visitors to help state agencies keep and build upon existing assets that will provide diverse experiences for all of us who love this region. We are embarked on an effort that retains the important economic system that an operating railroad represents, while expanding the amenities for residents and visitors alike to enjoy the scenery and communities traversed by the corridor.

      The notion expressed in Mr. Goodwin’s intervention that only double tracked rights of way are viable options for trails with rails is not correct – there are many instances where trails operate within the right of way. ASR is one of them as is readily apparent to anyone who has taken a ride on the southern end of the line. TRAC is exploring and developing viable alternatives that will sustain trails within the right of way; members are working with state agency representatives to identify and plan for the development and expansion of existing assets to connect communities to the railroad corridor.

      It is long past time that the divisive tactics and misinformation by people like Mr. Goodwin and his colleagues cease, and that they become more collaborative in the efforts to fully develop existing assets for the enjoyment of residents and visitors alike.

  3. Steve says:

    Great ideas, but not sure of its place in the rail corridor debate. There is a serious question about the use of the rail corridor, the feasibility of a train and the economic impact of a level rail trail connecting lake placid to old forge.

    Jack, why limit the discussion to the park?
    Is it just us or is there something missing from the discussion of rails and trails? Why is the discussion of trails limited to one rail bed (of many within the STATE) rather than exploring the larger question of, “What are the trail needs STATE wide? How about the whole country? Too big of a task? Why not limit it to at town or county?

  4. Curt Austin says:

    I’ve seen quite a few planning efforts produce attractive-looking documents with very little useful content. The most recent example is a plan developed to link Bolton Landing with Lake George Village with a bike trail. At least, that was the selling point of the effort in obtaining the money to do the plan, and what casual observers still think will come of the effort.

    As can be plainly seen while driving 9N between those two communities, the geographic and political challenges make any such trail entirely infeasible, and the report says so – in words so gentle that they can be missed. More prominent is the suggestion that more study is needed, despite the clear meaning of the gentle words. Given that this was the main objective of the exercise, this conclusion – give us more money – should have been met with scorn.

    (I always read reports like these backwards – the real stuff is in the back – for example, the actual action plan. I skip over the signage, “synergies”, and marketing fluff – I want to know where shovels will hit dirt.)

    Closer to me, everyone agrees that it would be great to link the communities of Chestertown and Brant Lake. Route 8 is a bit dicey for the casual cyclist, so the idea of a connector trail is often mentioned. But just as for 9N, there is no suitable corridor, the eminent domain takings to widen Route 8 are politically untenable, and the expense would be huge. It ain’t gonna happen. No study is required, unless it has a more practical scope, such as moving the lane lines in a bit, keeping the shoulders smooth, moving guide rails out a bit – that sort of thing.

    My point: No study is required. In the terrain of the Adirondack Park, there are few opportunities for bike trails. They have to be flat, cheap, and not involve eminent domain takings. The notion “community link” is attractive, but is usually not even remotely feasible. By all means, do things that make walking and cycling along roadways safer and more pleasant, as the opportunity permits.

    But wait! Flat, no property takings required, cheap, a community link – bingo!

    • Paul says:

      Flat equals boring for many riders.

      • brian m says:

        I live in a canal town (Pittsford) and let me tell you, there are hundreds more hikers and bikers on that flat Canal trail daily than in the very nearby county parks with hilly trails.

      • Tim says:

        If you think flat rail trails are boring, there are plenty of trails in the adirondacks for you. For families with young children, casual bikers and baby boomers who want flat don’t have many options.

      • Curt Austin says:

        Paul: What you’re saying is true, for the most serious of serious cyclists. But are you implying that a flat bike trail would be unpopular? That’s certainly not true – there are thousands of hugely popular rail trails all over the country.

  5. Gillian says:

    We visited Switzerland a few years ago and were able to hike inn-to-inn (village-to-village) for about a week. And it wasn’t road walking – it was well-maintained footpaths and old dirt roads, with no traffic and lovely, scenic views. It was an awesome way to travel and we came back wondering why there aren’t more opportunities to do that here.

  6. Kurt Seitz says:


    You present an excellent idea, one that is not new but seems to have been lost along the way. In 1969, the NYS Council of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, headed by Laurance Rockefeller, put out a report entitled Outdoor Recreation Trails in New York State, which outlined recommendations for trails policy and development. The report proposed a “NYS Greenway” system linking existing trail routes, canal corridors, abandoned rail corridors, utility rights-of-way, state parks and historic sites, wildlife areas, and scenic overlooks. The system proposed integrating communities with natural, scenic, and historical locations. The term “greenway” was replaced with the term “recreationway” a few years later. More recently, the term “community trails” has been used.

    That greenway concept took off in an urban setting when New York City came out with its “Greenway Plan” in 1993, and NYC has continued to make excellent progress with its system, albeit partially on city streets. The state system made good progress in the 1970s but has since been very lackluster. I attempted to highlight a statewide greenway system, mostly as a proposal, when I wrote portions of the 2010 New York Statewide Trails Plan for OPRHP []. I included only a few proposed greenway/ recreationway/ community trail routes in the Adirondacks, but of course the potential is much greater.

    I heartily endorse an interconnected network of community trails both throughout the Adirondack Park and throughout the state. I proposed such a network in my thesis paper, entitled “Infrastructure for a Sustainable Society: Planning for Greenways in New York State”, for grad school in 2009. Excerpts follow:

    “Charles Little provides a visionary line in Greenways for America when he states: “To make a greenway, as you will find as you read further in this book, is to make a community. And that, above all else, is what the movement is all about.”… A state-level management structure of a statewide greenway network is important to achieve standardization and to maintain adequate control over the multiple uses of greenways, which would likely become unbalanced if left to single-use interest groups, or to an agency that specializes in other things… There is now a wealth of information available from many sources on the benefits of greenways, economic and otherwise, which provides a compelling argument in favor of developing greenways… New York State, with a history of grand public works projects that were a model for the nation – the Erie Canal, the Croton Aqueduct and Reservoirs, New York City’s Central Park, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Thruway – has the potential to create a grand model of sustainable infrastructure at a time when it is most needed. New York already has a greenway legacy that could serve as the foundation of a much more extensive statewide system of greenways, the development of which could help lift the state out of the current recession. A network of greenways that rivals our network of highways would stimulate tourism, promote a healthy lifestyle for the state’s residents, provide community infrastructure, contribute to a new conservation ethic, enhance our quality of life, and be a showcase for an environmental sustainable lifestyle. Greenway would take its place in the lexicon of New Yorkers alongside the terms highway, driveway, parkway, railway, freeway, speedway, runway, and subway. A new state-level greenway agency, which would best serve the needs for planning, development, maintenance, and management of the statewide greenway network, could also become a model for a new form of governance, one that intimately involves the public in public works and helps bridge the gap of a growing polarization in politics.”

    Best wishes!

    • Curt Austin says:

      “I heartily endorse an interconnected network of community trails both throughout the Adirondack Park …”

      There are special problems to achieving this vision in the Adirondacks. Distances are long. The terrain is challenging. Acquiring rights of way can require constitutional amendments in addition to the usual troubles. Even “Greenways” will alarm Adirondack environmentalists – I experienced this myself in connection with a proposed bike trail near me (and, I must say, they fight dirty).

      Those are the problems in establishing community connectors. There’s also the question of use. As recreation, they will be popular, but as a form of alternative transportation, they will rarely be effective – the distances, elevation profiles, the weather, the generally sparse population – I’ll take my Prius or Leaf, thank you.

      I’m trying to say two things: A planning exercise will find few opportunities for effective “community connectors” in the Adirondacks (unless we’re talking making existing roadways more bike-friendly). But one of the rare opportunities is staring us in the face.

      Perhaps you’d like to go out on a limb, Mr. Seitz, and recommend – without further study! – that the corridor in question be converted to a trail.

      • Kurt Seitz says:


        There are a multitude of approaches to achieving a network of “community trails” or “greenways”, including the use of existing and former railroad right-of-ways, existing trails, back roads, former roads, utility right-of-ways, streets, highway right-of-ways, etc. Yes, it can be challenging but we need people who are up to the challenge. But we also need political will.

        Yes, I am in favor of converting the former railroad in question into a trail. The portions currently in use by trains can wait. But I agree with Jack that it should be part of a comprehensive plan involving a network of trails and an overall vision for that network. Planning is essential. However, my recommendations have very limited influence in the grand scheme of things.

        • Curt Austin says:


          I think you need to see the exact nature of the “multitude of approaches” up here. In many cases, what would be needed to make a greenway a popular form of alternative transportation is a long, abandoned tunnel. We’re talking about the Adirondack *Mountains*.

          We certainly need people who are up to the challenge. In fact, nearly all bike trails come about only through the dedicated efforts of a few individuals. I don’t know of any that were initiated and developed by a planning firm. The pushback I and others are giving here is because you are discouraging the efforts of a local group of dedicated individuals – a very precious resource. If you like trails, cherish this resource.

          It may be relevant that Rails to Trails Conservancy strongly recommends that trail advocates build trails where they can, and not worry about missing links. This seems very wrong from a planner’s point of view, but it is totally in sync with the way things actually get done.

          I’m a former engineer. Developing a new jet engine requires an extraordinary amount of planning. A rail trail does not – it’s already there. It can’t be moved or even changed much, no matter what may appear in a “comprehensive plan” or “overall vision.

          Except that, yes, the final report from a consultant or distant committee might find an alternative route. One that isn’t “already there” – a new route. That’s the horror of it – a new route requires property acquisition, excavation, cutting, filling, drainage, culverts, bridges, causeways, permits – an insane amount of money. The authors will wave their hands about the cost of this idea, but the local folks will see it for what it is: a deal-breaker, utter and absolute.

          My last plea is that you accept that there’s nothing complicated here, except that the corridor is currently being used for something else. That’s not so complicated either, in my view: the issue is whether rail infrastructure is likely to become important again (soon). But whether a rail-trail fits or doesn’t fit with some grand view of an entirely hypothetical (and unlikely) Adirondack Greenway Network is of no importance whatsoever.

          After all, it is a “community connector”. Let the community have it if they want it. By all means, work up a formal vision, a grander plan. But don’t make them wait – did you mention “Rockefeller? – forever.

  7. Smitty says:

    The comprehensive study is a good concept but I suspect it has more to do with delaying or derailing (sorry for the pun) any rail trail. The Adirondacks have tremendous recreational opportunities in almost every conceivable type of outdoor recreation except for one….a decent bike path for the growing community of rail trail lovers. I have to think that a rail trail through such magnificent terrain would be a great boon for the region. What I can’t figure out is why both groups can’t be accommodated. Keep the rail line from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake (the scenery on that stretch isn’t that spectacular anyway) but develop a rail trail from Saranac to Tupper Lake and to the south.

    • brian m says:

      I completely agree with you on the stall technique courtesy of NYS who needs to drag it out to see who squawks most or loudest before making a decision…….the study will also provide the “illusion of inclusion” they will take a lot of credit for.

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