At the first of four public meetings on the future of the Adirondack rail corridor, state officials made it clear Tuesday night that a rails-with-trails compromise is not an option–which likely did not sit well with the many supporters of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad in the crowd.
About 100 people packed a room at the State Office Building in Utica to hear representatives of the Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation outline their plans for amending the 90-mile corridor’s management plan.
The departments have proposed removing the tracks in the 34-mile section between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid and building a multi-use trail for road biking, hiking, skiing, and snowmobiling. The state would retain and rehabilitate the tracks south of Tupper Lake.
Under this proposal, Adirondack Scenic Railroad (ASR) would be forced to give up a seasonal tourist train that operates between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, but it could continue running its tourist train in the Old Forge area and would have a chance to run trains all the way to Tupper Lake.
ASR, however, wants the state to keep and repair the entire line. Many of the train’s supporters have urged the state to retain the rails and build a trail alongside them.
But Raymond Hessinger, director of DOT’s Freight and Passenger Rail Bureau, said constructing a side-by-side trail is not possible, owing to environmental and legal constraints. He noted there are places where the corridor passes through wetlands or over waterways where there is not enough room for a trail.
Some rail boosters have suggested that spur trails could be built off the corridor where there is not enough room for a side-by-side trail. But Robert Davies, director of DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, told Adirondack Almanack that this option is not feasible either.
Davies said it would be illegal to build a bike trail similar to a rail trail–wide, flat, smooth, perhaps paved–in the Forest Preserve. Although it would be possible to build “typical hiking trails” off the corridor, he added, “that’s not the kind of trail under discussion.” Such trails would not be suitable for road bikes.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) has been urging the state to remove the tracks between the Old Forge area and Lake Placid. It maintains that a multi-use trail would attract tens of thousands of tourists annually and boost the region’s economy. Under this proposal, too, Adirondack Scenic Railroad could continue operating its Old Forge train.
Hessinger said DOT and DEC feel that the corridor between Old Forge and Tupper Lake is too remote for a recreational trail. He said rail trails that connect communities see far more use than remote trails. The 34-mile section that the state proposes to convert to a rail trail passes through Tupper Lake, Lake Clear, Saranac Lake, Ray Brook, and Lake Placid.
Hessinger also discussed the relative costs of rehabilitating the tracks versus converting the corridor to a trail. The state estimates that rehabbing the line from Big Moose (the northern terminus of the Old Forge train) to Lake Placid would cost $17.7 million. Under this scenario, the tracks would be upgraded only enough to allow the trains to travel 40 miles an hour.
If the tracks were replaced with a trail, the cost would be $21.2 million, according to Hessinger. This estimate factors in the cost of removing the rails. ARTA has argued that the sale of the rails would cover much of the cost of constructing the trail, but Hessinger said the money the state would receive from the rails would not even cover the cost of removing them.
The cost of rehabbing the tracks from Big Moose to Tupper Lake and converting the rest of the corridor to a trail–as the state is proposing–would total $20.8 million.
In addition, the state plans to construct new snowmobile trails between Big Moose and Tupper Lake. As yet, it’s unknown where the trails would be built or how much they would cost. Snowmobilers ride in the corridor in winter but complain that they can use it only when there is enough snow to cover the rails. Thus, they generally support removing the tracks.
Hessinger said the cost of maintaining the tracks and the trail is about the same–roughly $1,500 a mile annually.
DEC’s Davies said the state expects to issue a draft management plan in late spring or early summer. The public will have a chance to comment on the draft plan before it is finalized. The final plan is expected to be approved by the end of next year. Work on the corridor could begin in 2016.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, state officials gathered public comments that will be evaluated before the draft plan is written. Those with comments did not speak publicly. Rather, they were asked to speak privately to officials at “listening stations,” and the officials then jotted down their comments on large pieces of paper. Judging by the comments and questions, many of the people in the room favored keeping the rails. That was to be expected as ASR is based in Utica and its excursion trains are popular there.
Another meeting will be held from 1-3 p.m. today at View in Old Forge. Other meetings will be held from 6-8 p.m. November 6 at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake and from 1-3 p.m. November 7 at the Olympic Regional Development Authority office in Lake Placid.
Public comments also can be emailed through December 15 to [email protected]
Photo by Phil Brown: A crowd listens to the discussion of the rail corridor at a meeting in the State Office Building in Utica.