Supporters of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad continue to push for keeping the tracks at the Lake Placid end of the rail line and for creating a “rails-with-trails” option for bikers, hikers, snowmobilers, and others who want to use the state-owned corridor.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which operates the railroad, said in a news release last week that a multi-use travel corridor best serves the public interest. “Rails and trails can exist and work successfully together,” it declared.
On Monday, a volunteer group called Trails with Rail Action Committee (TRAC) also voiced support for this idea. TRAC says it has been working with state officials “to identify recreational trails within the existing Remsen to Lake Placid travel corridor and looks forward to contributing to realizing the full economic potential of this important asset in the Adirondacks.”
Both the railway society and TRAC were reacting to the state’s announcement last week that it would revisit the management plan for the 119-mile corridor between Remsen and Lake Placid. The state is proposing to remove the tracks in the 34-mile stretch from Tupper Lake to Placid but leave the rest of the tracks in place.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs tourist trains out of Old Forge and Lake Placid, does not want to lose any of the line. In its news release, the society says it is confident that the state eventually will decide in favor of maintaining and rehabilitating the entire rail line, “recognizing that this is not and should not be an either-or proposition.”
Most observers agree that it’s not practical to build a recreational trail alongside the full length of the tracks, given that the rail line often crosses wetlands and water bodies. Environmental regulations and construction costs would pose difficult and perhaps insurmountable challenges.
However, rail supporters say it’s still possible to have rails with trails. By this, they mean we should build a trail beside the tracks where feasible. Elsewhere, users of the corridor would be temporarily diverted to adjacent roads, existing trails, or newly constructed trails.
Joe Mercurio, president of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, sees the rails-with-trails option as unworkable, especially for bicyclists.
“The idea of getting off the trail, going on a road, and getting back on the trail again isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to attract people to the area,” he said.
As Mercurio points out, one of the appeals of a bike path is that it gives people—including families with young children—a chance to ride away from highway traffic.
But what if riders were diverted onto trails instead of roads?
To date, Adirondack Scenic Railroad has not offered a proposal showing where bikers and other users would leave and re-enter the rail corridor or where they would travel when outside it. But Jack Drury, a Saranac Lake guide and member of TRAC, has offered a rails-with-trails proposal for the Tupper-to-Placid corridor—the section that the state has suggested should be converted into a recreational path.
UnderDrury’s proposal, it appears (just eyeballing the map) that a side-by-side trail could be built on roughly half of the corridor—in discontinuous sections. Users would need to leave the corridor for long detours around Lake Colby, Lake Clear, and other water bodies. In most cases, the detours would take people on trails through Forest Preserve lands.
When I spoke with Drury on Monday, he conceded that road bikers would not be able to utilize Forest Preserve trails. Indeed, his website says of the proposed Placid-to-Tupper route that “short sections could be done by road bikes and the entire thing could be done on mountain bikes, by foot, ski, and snowshoe.”
Drury wants to see trails connecting communities throughout the Adirondack Park, but he said he is focused more on hiking and cross-country skiing than on biking. That said, he believes a side-by-side trail can be built between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
As to the rest of the route?
“What I’m advocating is not for road bikes,” he said.
Bob Hest, a spokesman for TRAC, said the group appreciates Drury’s work. Although the group hasn’t formally endorsed his proposal, he said, it’s the kind of thing TRAC has in mind for the corridor. “It’s in the mix,” Hest said. “It’s among the items we’re going to put forward for this review [of the management plan].”
As far as I know, this is the only detailed proposal by the advocates for rails with trails, and it seems incompatible with the concept of a long-distance bike path that would link the communities of Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, and Tupper Lake. Thus, Drury’s proposal obviously is unacceptable to ARTA, whose main goal is to create such a bike path (which could be used by snowmobiles in winter).
Mercurio, a Saranac Lake resident, doubts that a long-distance trail such as Drury is proposing–making use of parts of the rail corridor and spur trails–would attract a lot of visitors. “I don’t see it as a reasonable alternative,” he said. “Our proposal is the preferable one that is going to offer something beneficial to the community, not only economically, but recreationally.”
So, yes, it may be possible to have rails with trails, but that doesn’t resolve the controversy. At least, the only rails-with-trails proposal on the table doesn’t resolve it. It’s a little like apples and oranges.
Last week, I asked Joe Martens, the state’s environmental conservation commissioner, why the state didn’t back the rails-with-trails idea for the section between Placid and Tupper.
“My staff—and DOT’s staff—looked at it very carefully, and it’s very complicated,” he said, alluding to environmental and legal challenges posed by wetlands and Forest Preserve regulations. Later, he added in an email: “It’s when the trail needs to be diverted to adjoining land where it gets complicated and costly.”
However, Martens said the advocates of rails with trails will have a chance to make their case in public hearings on the management plan. “This is just a proposal,” he said. “We’re still going to solicit input.”
Photo by Susan Bibeau: Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s train approaches Saranac Lake.