The Harrietstown Town Board voted Thursday night in favor of keeping the local railroad tracks in place, but it’s uncertain what effect the resolution will have on a state proposal to remove the tracks between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid.
On a motion by Councilman Howard Riley, the board voted 4-0 to support keeping the tracks. The resolution says the rail line provides “a positive impact on the area.”
Harrietstown includes the village of Saranac Lake, whose depot is used by two local businesses: Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which runs tourist trains to and from Lake Placid, and Rail Explorers USA, which runs pedal-power excursions to and from Lake Clear.
Rail Explorers, which began operations in July, says it attracted almost 15,000 riders in its first season, which ended in the fall.
If the state follows through with its proposal, Rail Explorers would have to move to another part of the rail corridor or to a different rail line. Adirondack Scenic Railroad would have to shut down its Lake Placid train, but could continue to operate tourist trains in the Old Forge area.
Riley told the Adirondack Almanack that Rail Explorers’ presentation to the board earlier this year prompted him to sponsor the resolution to keep the rails. “Since the tracks are there and it’s been such a hit – that’s what convinced me and the rest of the board to vote to keep them,” he said.
Riley conceded, though, that he doesn’t know if the town’s action will carry much weight with state officials. “I don’t know if our vote is going to impress anybody or change anybody’s mind,” he said.
After years of vehement public debate, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and state Department of Transportation recently finalized a plan to divide the state-owned rail corridor into two segments. Between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid, 34 miles of tracks would be removed, enabling the creation of a recreational trail for snowmobiling and skiing in winter and for bicycling and hiking in other seasons. South of Tupper Lake, the state would fix up 45 miles of tracks that are now in disrepair. This would enable tourist trains to run from Utica to Tupper Lake. It would be one of the longest tourist trains in the nation.
The Adirondack Park Agency has yet to rule on whether the plan conforms to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. At its November meeting, however, APA officials said they did not foresee any conflicts with the master plan. The agency is now weighing public comments on the matter.
Jim McCulley of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, which has been pushing for a trail, said he doubts Harrietstown’s vote will make a difference.
“I think the decision has been made,” he said. “I think the state realizes at this point that we’re better off with a trail.”
Three years ago, the Harrietstown board voted to ask the state to reopen the management plan for the rail corridor. That vote came over the objections of rail supporters.
Several other towns and villages asked the state to remove the rails or reopen the management plan, saying the train does little to benefit the local economy. ARTA contends that a rail trail will attract tens of thousands of tourists annually.
Riley is skeptical of ARTA’s projections, calling them “just figures in the newspaper.” In contrast, he said, Rail Explorers has proven it can attract tourists from many parts of the state and other parts of the country.
McCulley counters that Rail Explorers’ numbers are likely to tail off once the novelty of the operation wears off.
Photo by Susan Bibeau: an Adirondack Scenic Railroad train enters Saranac Lake.