After years of public debate and numerous public meetings, the state is nearing a final decision on the future of the rail corridor between Old Forge and Lake Placid, but railroad supporters and rail-trail advocates continue to disagree.
On Wednesday night, the Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation held a public hearing on its plan to remove 34 miles of track between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and refurbish 45 miles of track between Tupper Lake and Big Moose (a depot northeast of Old Forge).
About 120 people attended the hearing at Tupper Lake’s high school, and 38 spoke. Some favored the state’s plan, seeing it as a reasonable compromise. Rail supporters, however, opposed the removal of tracks between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid, while trail advocates opposed the state’s spending millions of dollars to fix up the rail line south of Tupper Lake.
Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs tourist trains in the corridor, argued that it makes more sense to fix up the rail line all the way to Lake Placid, which is more popular than Tupper Lake as a tourist destination. “We believe there’s a better way, and we’re going to continue to scrap for that,” he said.
The railway society operates the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which runs tourist trains at both ends of the corridor–between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake and between Utica and Big Moose. Because of damaged track, the railroad has not yet brought its train to Lake Placid this year.
Several of the speakers Wednesday night were from Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, a nonprofit group that wants the state to remove the tracks between Big Moose and Lake Placid and create a 79-mile recreational trail that they contend will attract tens of thousands of visitors each year, including cyclists in warm weather and snowmobilers in winter.
Hope Frenette, a Tupper Lake resident and ARTA board member, said a rail trail will enable visitors to enjoy the natural beauty surrounding Tupper Lake and enable the former logging town to shift to a tourist economy. “Our lakes, rivers, mountains, and forests are what we have to work with,” she said.
Dick Beamish, another ARTA member, urged the state not to refurbish the tracks south of Tupper Lake until it has a chance to evaluate the success of the rail trail and the feasibility of an expanded rail line. He questioned whether tourists will want to ride a train for several hours to reach Tupper Lake.
“This project is shaping up to be an embarrassing boondoggle,” said Beamish, the founder of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine, which operates Adirondack Almanack.
The state estimates it will cost $11 million to repair the tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake and up to $9.8 million to remove the tracks and build a trail between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid.
Others who spoke against leaving the tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake included snowmobilers who argued that the rails pose a danger to riders and limit the snowmobiling season (since the snow is not always deep enough to cover the rails). Chris Keniston, a local rider, said if the tracks are removed, snowmobilers would be able to ride between Tupper and Old Forge, a snowmobiling mecca, throughout the winter. “Connecting to Old Forge would be like connecting to Disneyland in the winter,” he said.
But Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, said he generally supports the state’s proposal, which also includes plans for new snowmobile trails between Big Moose and Tupper Lake.
Some rail supporters continued to argue that the trails can be built within or near the rail corridor without removing the tracks–an option that the state has ruled out for environmental and legal reasons.
Amy Catania of Historic Saranac Lake pointed out that the corridor is on the National Register of Historic Places. Removing the tracks, she said, would destroy part of the region’s heritage.
Last night’s hearing was supposed to be the last, but at the insistence of rail supporters, DEC and DOT agreed to hold a second hearing on July 20 in Utica, where the Adirondack Scenic Railroad is based. That hearing will start at 4 pm in the State Office Building at 207 Genesee Street. In addition, the state will receive written comments through July 27. Comments can be emailed to [email protected] or mailed to: John Schmid, Natural Resources Planner, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 625 Broadway, 5th Floor, Albany, NY 12233-4254.
DEC expects to present a final proposal to the Adirondack Park Agency in October. The APA must review the proposal to ensure it complies with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.
Photo by Phil Brown: Hope Frenette speaks at the public hearing in Tupper Lake.