The Adirondack Park Agency has received a flood of letters and emails seeking to influence its forthcoming decision on the future of a state-owned rail corridor that extends 119 miles from Remsen to Lake Placid.
At its November meeting, the APA board voted to solicit public comments on whether a plan to split the corridor into a trail segment and a rail segment complies with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. The agency may vote on the matter as early as next month.
Comments were accepted through December 18. Pursuant to a freedom-of-information request, the Adirondack Almanack recently obtained and reviewed the comments. The PDF file provided by the agency comprises 373 pages, but it includes some duplication.
Given the contentiousness of the rail-trail debate, it’s not surprising that the APA received so many comments. Nor is it surprising – based on our review of comments submitted at other points in the debate – that many of the writers rehashed arguments made before or that many comments contained identical language.
In the past, people were asked to comment on the merits of the proposal to bifurcate the rail corridor. In this case, the APA solicited comments on the legal question of “Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan conformance.” Nevertheless, most of the writers delved into the merits of the proposal and ignored or barely touched on the question at hand.
I didn’t keep a tally, but most of the people who commented were in favor of keeping the tracks throughout the corridor. Some rail proponents did address the legal question and contended that the proposal to bifurcate the rail corridor violates the State Land Master Plan.
Last fall, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and state Department of Transportation finalized a proposal to remove 34 miles of track between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and rehabilitate 45 miles of track south of Tupper Lake. The segment from Placid to Tupper would be converted to a recreational trail for snowmobiling, skiing, bicycling, hiking, and other activities.
In the State Land Master Plan, the rail line is classified as a Travel Corridor. Given this status, rail proponents contend that tracks cannot be removed – at least, not without amending the master plan.
If the rail corridor were to lose its Travel Corridor designation, it would revert to other state-land classifications – usually Wilderness or Wild Forest, depending on the location. A multi-use recreational trail such as DEC and DOT envision would then run afoul of Forest Preserve regulations.
However, DEC officials say the Travel Corridor designation can be retained despite the removal of tracks if the corridor remains under the jurisdiction of DOT. By retaining this designation, they add, tracks could be laid down again if a demand for rail service should arise.
Stephen Erman, a former economic analyst for the APA who now sits on the board of the Adirondack North Country Association, offers one of the most detailed arguments that the position of DEC and DOT violates the State Land Master Plan. We quote at length from his letter to the APA:
“This conclusion ignores the statements in the SLMP showing clear intent for this Corridor to be committed to rail transportation uses.
“All references in the SLMP state or imply that the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor is to be used for rail transportation, including the SLMP’s definition of ‘Travel Corridor’ on page 46. That definition is: ‘… that strip of land constituting the roadbed and right-of-way for state and interstate highways in the Adirondack Park, the Remsen to Lake Placid railroad right-of-way, and those state lands immediately adjacent to and visible from these facilities [emphasis added by Erman].’
“The use of the term ‘facilities,’ meaning highways or rails and other railroad infrastructure, illuminates the clear intention for designated travel corridors to serve highway or rail transportation uses.
“I see no reasonable justification in any of the materials submitted by DEC/DOT for saying that the 34 miles from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid should remain a Travel Corridor devoid of its rail infrastructure if it is to be used, not for rail transportation, but for recreational activities. The DEC/DOT proposal has a clear inconsistency with the Travel Corridor definition in the State Land Master Plan. If the State intends to remove the rails beyond Tupper Lake, the State Land Master Plan should be amended to reclassify the route between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid.”
Erman also contends that it makes no business sense to terminate the rail line at Tupper Lake, since it lacks the allure of Lake Placid. As the Adirondack Club and Resort is developed, Tupper Lake’s appeal as a tourist destination will grow, Erman said, but that is years down the road.
“In my view, the successful rail operation envisioned by the State will not be possible between Remsen and Tupper Lake, for many years, unless the State of New York is itself willing to operate that railroad as a public venture. And this, I am sure, will not happen.”
In previous comments, Erman has suggested that trains be allowed to travel at least as far as Saranac Lake, eight miles west of Lake Placid. Saranac Lake is one of the largest communities in the Adirondack Park.
The nonprofit Adirondack Scenic Railroad (ASR) operates tourist trains on the corridor in the Old Forge region, sometimes going as far north as Big Moose, and also between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. Between Big Moose and Saranac Lake, the tracks are in disrepair and not in regular use.
Under the DEC/DOT proposal, ASR would have to shut down its Lake Placid operation but could continue to run its more successful trains in the Old Forge area and eventually extend service as far north as Tupper Lake.
ASR wants the state to reopen the entire corridor to rail service. If this were done, trains could be run from Lake Placid to Utica. In Utica, rail passengers could make connections with Amtrak.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates argues that there is not enough demand to warrant keeping the tracks in place. ARTA has lobbied the state to remove the tracks between Big Moose and Lake Placid to create a trail that would be used by snowmobilers and skiers in winter and by bicyclists, walkers, and others the rest of the year. Such a trail, it says, would do more for the economy than the tourist train.
Photo by Susan Bibeau: ASR train outside Saranac Lake.