Tuesday, January 12, 2016

APA Flooded With Comments On Rail-Trail Debate

Adirondack Tourist Train (Susan Bibeau)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.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

40 Responses

  1. Brandon Pearce says:

    The entire Adirondack train rout needs to stay in place all the way to Lake Placid. We need to have full train service to this jewel of NYS, and all the other amazing communities ru,ing along this line. It makes no sense to open terrain to polluting and excessively noise ridden snowmobiling, The traffic from all these individual machines is wasteful and harsh on the natural life.
    The train is what made the fabric of the upstate culture and economy work. The Adirondacks need this sensitive transportation accessibility to be back online.

  2. Boreas says:

    It will be interesting to see how relevant the APA is in the outcome of this quagmire.

    I also find it interesting that “Stephen Erman, a former economic analyst for the APA” states that the allure of the ACR in Tupper is years down the road, while maintaining the status quo of NO rail service to Tupper is somehow preferable to a multi-use trail. He seems to be assuming that rail service from Utica to LP is somehow going to be resurrected by DEC/DOT despite their obvious reluctance to gamble with taxpayer funds in the past.

    When push comes to shove, if there is no taxpayer funding, there will be no Utica/LP rail service nor will there be any recreation trail. The status quo will be maintained and the bulk of the rail corridor will continue to go unused and fall further into disrepair.

  3. Curt Austin says:

    Mr. Ehman writes “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.”


    And also “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.”

    Nope, not clear at all, the argument hangs on a thin thread, the meaning and implication of “facilities”. The thread about the potential re-installation of the rails, if warranted, is also a bit thin (the scenario is unlikely) but it’s much stronger than a weak semantic argument.

    ANCA puzzles me. Their motto is “Building resilient local economies in the Adirondack North County”. How is pursuing an anachronistic technology mesh with “resilient”? They prefer local art, local food, green energy – modern-day earth shoe stuff. Why do they prefer a big lumbering smoke-spewing machine over people on bicycles? Weird.

  4. Bruce says:

    Why can’t people see what should be obvious, that a two-pronged approach (part rail, part trail compromise) to improving the economy is better than either/or? I think everyone agrees that attracting outside money is vital to improving the local economy. To that end, it needs to be realized than not every visitor will ride the train, nor will everyone use the trail, and some will do both. The “compromise” gives visitors a choice of activities. Tupper Lake will be in a position to reap the benefits of both, but only if we get away from the often expressed idea of what was before, will be the future.

    I believe the SLMP is a “dynamic” document, which means it can be changed to suit changing conditions and regional needs without jeopardizing its base purpose of controlling development and preventing a “raping”, as it were, of the forest preserve, in spite of what some groups would have us believe.

  5. Paul says:

    This is a pretty straightforward question for the agency. The decision on what to do has already been made the question here is does the plan comply with the ASLMP. If it does then fine, if it does not they will have to come up with an alternative plan or stick with what they are doing now. The APA has no power to decide trail or train just compliance.

  6. AdkBuddy says:

    If I recall, the leadership of ANCA has always supported the railroad. I know a couple of these individuals and they are rail fans first, economic developers second.

  7. Stephen Erman says:

    To “Boreas”: You would better understand what I said to the Agency if you read the full letter rather than the few quotes used in this article. The ACR will be built incrementally and it will need to mature before Tupper Lake becomes a true tourism destination. In the letter, I said that the State proposal “is 15 years ahead of the market.” Therefore, eliminating the rails beyond Tupper Lake now will jeopardize the viability of ANY private rail operation. Unit Management Plans should be realistic and achievable. The DEC/DOT proposal is not. We probably disagree about the growing importance of passenger rail access to the Tri-Lakes economy in the future. But, the No. Country Regional Economic Development Council feels strongly about it and the State-funded Regional Sustainability Plan has said rail infrastructure should be preserved and improved. The State DEC needs to “roll up its sleeves” and define a trail network beyond Tupper that does not jeopardize this important rail line.
    – Steve Erman

    • Boreas says:


      I think where we disagree is with regard to TL. It seems you feel the future of TL rests entirely on the long-term success of the ACR. I feel both TL and the ACR would benefit sooner as BOTH a rail terminus and a trail terminus. If it is just a stop on the line to LP, it won’t amount to much more than a rest room break. I feel there is more potential for the Park’s economy by developing the great potential for TL vs adding more congestion to LP. TL has much more physical room to develop and expand than LP which seems overcrowded as it is.

      • Hope says:

        Exactly Boreas! It’s time to expand the focus beyond Lake Placid and promote the Adirondacks regionally. Putting all the eggs in the LP basket will not make “resilent, sustainable communities” just ask the small towns along the Saratoga-North Creek that used to have viable winter economy until the train came along. The small communities will die off by being choked off by the railroad becoming nothing but a whistle stop on the way to Lake Placid. What is significant here is that LP has no interest in having the train. They would prefer the trail. I think that LP knows a lot more about what brings people into their community to recreate, purchase real estate and relocate. All community building opportunities rather than limited tourist opportunities. We can no longer just focus on tourism but must get back to building communities.

        • Boreas says:


          Obviously, I agree with you. Frankly, once one has been to LP to do some shopping and see the sights, what is the real attraction? It is a typical skiing village – expensive shops, restaurants, and hotels, congestion, parking problems, and a 35 year-old Olympic complex? It isn’t exactly my destination when I want relaxation and solitude. Whenever possible, I bypass the village using the Old Military Road. And as you say, I haven’t heard a lot from LP that suggests they even want the terminus there.

          I think SL is a good model of a thriving community because it isn’t as hemmed in by state land and mountains. But TL could certainly use some help. A train passing through will not have as much impact as both passenger train and a world class recreation trail terminating there.

          With increased interest in TL, lower rent for retail shops and other amenities should attract a lot of new entrepreneurs to the area. Add a high-speed internet trunk with optical capability and you can attract hi-tech business. It would also help ACR become more attractive and likely speed its growth.

          I would like to think DEC had a lot of this in mind when they came up with the compromise. After all, they have been mulling the rail corridor situation over for decades. If re-classifying the corridor is what it takes, then lets get it done. Unfortunately, the polarity of both the rail and trail supporters will likely keep anything from happening any time soon.

          • Paul says:

            LP isn’t that crowded at all. It is a great place to vacation that is why so many people enjoy coming there. I have a place near SL and I spend time there shopping etc. Even at peak I don’t really have any trouble getting around LP or parking. The stuff you are saying about Tupper may be true. If you come from a place like NYC or even Albany Lake Placid is pretty laid back and quiet with a huge Wilderness with the highest mountains in the Adirondacks right in the backyard.

            • Hope says:

              Over 100,000 visitors came to Tupper this summer for the Wild Walk. Lots of them came back again to hike and paddle the surrounding area. Just because Paul doesn’t think much of Tupper Lake is no reason to dismiss having the train terminus there. ARTA has embraced the compromise. It’s the train people who have not. It’s their way or no way. NYS has indicated it is not willing to go they way of TRAC. It’s not on the agenda.

              • Paul says:

                Hope, get a grip. Where did I disparage Tupper Lake in any of my comments. I think it is a great town. We are members at the Wild Center and we hit it several times a year. I love skiing at Big Tupper. My favorite place to ski race as a kid. Just because a person says something good about one town doesn’t mean they are saying something bad about another. Hope, I think that sometimes you do a pretty nice job of alienating folks who are really your friends with some of these type of knee jerk comments.

              • James Falcsik says:

                Wait a minute. Here are recent comments by the ARTA founder and funding source appearing in the OD about the state compromise plan and Tupper Lake as a terminus:

                “We believe that the idea of running the train north to Tupper Lake is a non-starter; it won’t happen,” said Lee Keet, a founding member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. “That would make it the longest tourist train in the United States and it ends up in a community that doesn’t have the facilities to host almost anything.”

                Talk about a disparaging comment. Keet and Stephen Erman seem to be on the same wave length, although from different perspectives.

                • Boreas says:

                  All are entitled to their opinions. I am not promoting the RR to TL, but rather promoting the compromise deal. I don’t have any more faith in a LP terminus than I do a TL terminus. Personally, I feel the history of the line over the last 60 years illustrates its long-term potential.

              • Keith Gorgas says:

                Let’s be honest here, Hope. DEC has rejected TRAC’s proposal, not because it would not work, nor because it is not cost effective. The problem with TRAC’s plan is that it doesn’t get the train off Lee Keet’s private lake, i.e. State owned Lake Colby. The DEC’s so called compromise is nothing of the sort, it is written by ARTA. ARTA knows very well, as Lee Keet said recently in the Utica newpaper, that the RR can not survive if it ends in Tupper Lake. With all due respect to the people of Tupper Lake, (and I believe that if both the rails and trails come through Tupper Lake, in a decade or so it will be the hot spot of the Adks, right now passengers have no real reason to take a train from Utica to Tupper Lake. For the investment in the rails to be worth it, either Saranac Lake or Lake Placid must be the destination. AMTRAK has agreed to sell tickets as soon as the commitment has been made to extend through to Saranac Lake. It’s the only way the Railroad would have a legitimate purpose. And it’s the people of Saranac Lake, not Lake Placid or , from what you say, Tupper Lake, that want the RR.

                • Hope says:

                  You are, as always, entitled to you opinion. But I can tell you that the people of Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid that support the trail conversion really don’t care about what happens in Lee Keet’s back yard. In fact I would venture to guess that 99% of trail supporters don’t even know who he is or where he lives. It makes little or no difference to them. They just want a trail.

                  • Nathanael says:

                    Hope’s one of the long time “rip out the rails” nuts. She isn’t even really a trail supporter; she just wants to rip the rails out.

                    Which is unfortunately true of all of ARTA. They have no proposals for how to fund or maintain a trail. They have no commercial case for a trail. They just want to tear the railroad out. They’ve proved this repeatedly.

                • Bill Hutchison says:

                  Hope and others keep trotting out the “thousands want the trail” argument, but I question whether people were explicitly told by ARTA that the railroad would die in the process? I seem to recall that their petitions were either misleading or conveniently left that fact out.

                  • Boreas says:


                    With due respect, I believe people on both sides of this argument have been guilty of massaged statistics and overly hopeful predictions. NYS and Park residents will have to separate the wheat from the chaff on their own, or let state officials decide for them.

                  • Hope says:

                    There are over 3000 people on our Facebook page alone that are very aware of what the building of the trail entails. No one is hiding anything. Over 200 signed up in the last 48 hours.

                • Boreas says:


                  I have never seen the details of AMTRAK’s agreement WRT the corridor. But I was under the impression that would involve upgrading the line significantly to a higher-speed, modern rail bed, not the lower speed repair job DEC has committed to in the compromise.

                  With AMTRAK’s usage along the line, how will that effect continued ASR & rail bike usage? In addition, what is the proposed length of their commitment to the route? What is the backup plan if it fails? My gut feeling is that after significant taxpayer investment in the corridor, it may only end up being a route that AMTRAK drops only a few years after implementation.

                  Now WRT TL being the terminus, I agree TL is not a realistic destination TODAY. But one should remember the rail corridor rehab would likely be years before it is up to standards – even longer to get the speed rating up. So where TL stands today may not be the same when the line is finally ready to run. Most likely the trail section would be completed first and would be viewed as a destination in itself. With proper promotion and infrastructure investment in TL, and development at ACR prior to rail service, TL would become more of an attraction – say 5 years down the road. Rail service would then be the final part of the plan.

                  But again, I am trying to put lipstick on a pig (the compromise, not TL). However I feel maintaining the status quo would likely be the worst outcome for NYS and the Park.

              • David Naone says:

                Hope, I’d like to see where your return visit numbers came from… Yes, the Wild Walk was a huge attraction for the Wild Center last summer, did record numbers, but the large majority of those people who came were day visitors and those that wanted to stay either ended up in Saranac Lake or Lake Placid for dinner and a hotel room.
                This is the trouble with the “If you build it they will come” attitude if you don’t have the amenities that most tourists from out of the area or state are used to prior to them getting here then they won’t stay or come back and they certainly aren’t going to recommend to their friends and other family members to spend their time or money coming here.
                Now we have all seen and heard the plans of the ACR and its developers but those endeavors are a long way off. The same holds true for the snowmobile lobby as well. Unless you have attractions that are geared towards them and without additional groomed trails then they are going to come here have lunch at the Lumberjack or Main Street and get gas at Larkins or Nice and Easy and then turn around and head back where they came from.
                Now, I love Tupper Lake and want it to succeed, it is my home and was my mothers home and my grand parents home but any economic plan that seeks to dismantle one viable contributor in favor of another contributor is a bad economic plan. If this is truly about economic development…. So far ARTA has shown me that it is.

            • Boreas says:


              I suppose you may be right WRT crowding in LP – I live in a small village so I am not up on my sidewalk etiquette – plus I can’t parallel park worth a damn. But during ski season, LP seems plenty busy – at least in the evening. I only go there to do stuff when it isn’t so busy.

              • Paul says:

                It is all relative. I find it a busy place as well don’t get me wrong. But when it comes to tourism as an economic driver busy is good. When I get the chance to go down to Cape Cod in the summer I think that LP at it’s peak must look like a ghost town to a person from Wood Hole or Hyannis Port!

  8. James Falcsik says:

    Mr. Erman’s comments here are very informative. In the SLMP travel corridors are specifically noted by name and route as being either a highway or a railroad. No mention of even one mile of a recreational trail or a right-of-way. From what I read elsewhere, there is a quiet effort underway to change this language to include the term “right-of-way” in a “back-door” manner. Looks a little sleazy to me.

    • Paul says:

      I think this is the major issue for the agency to consider. Is a motorized trail through Wilderness compliant with the ASLMP given the new planned use of the “travel corridor”. There has been a uproar by green groups regarding similar “wild forest corridors” to get snowmobile trails across Wilderness or Primitive lands but not much opposition here?

      • Scott says:

        Nothing motorized is SLMP wilderness compliant. But a railroad grade such as the Remsen-Placid line is not SLMP wilderness compliant to begin with.

        • Paul says:

          Actually I think that motorized vehicles can be used for emergency purposes in Wilderness areas. That is the only exception w/o some sort of state of emergency being declared by the state and the constitutional protections temporarily lifted.

          As I understand it the travel corridor designation that the RR bed has means that that particular land is not Wilderness the Wilderness is just on both sides in many places. Some will argue that the UMP there says that the rails can be removed and the bed will remain a travel corridor (which I think it does). The question for the APA is does that conform to the law (the ASLMP).

          • Nathanael says:

            Removing the railroad removes the travel corridor. Erman is quite right about that.

            And make no mistake: there are advocates of reverting the whole route to wilderness status, and the moment the rails are ripped out, they will be ready and willing to sue the state government to shut the trail down permanently.

        • David Naone says:

          Scott, the railroad pre-dates the SLMP and as such is included in the plan.

  9. Todd Eastman says:

    Until a case is made for utilizing this corridor for freight to service the communities along or near the line, converting the line to recreation and abandoning the ROW so it can be used for recreation is by far the preferred alternative.

    This issue is wasting valuable time and resources that could be used for real issues!

  10. Paul says:

    Despite how we got here, we are here now. If the APA says the plan isn’t compliant it it isn’t because they hate the train or the trail it is just because they think that it isn’t complaint with the law.

  11. Nathanael says:

    “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.”

    Are they kidding? There’s already a demand for rail service, as proven by the fact that *rail service is actually operating*. Claiming that this is a Travel Corridor because you could be operating trains on it, when you *evicted the trains from it and ripped the tracks up*, makes no sense whatsoever.

    The wilderness advocates will be all over this. The moment the tracks are ripped out, they’ll sue to force the entire line to revert to Wilderness and close the trail. And they’ll win.

    • Boreas says:


      I don’t share your gloomy, somewhat paranoid vision with regard to the DEC compromise. But let’s assume these “wilderness advocates” somehow manage to rip up the rails and revert the corridor to wilderness, would that be any worse than the current travel corridor status – the majority of which is reverting slowly to wilderness on its own due to lack of repair, maintenance, and usage? Does an unused rail corridor really belong anywhere, let alone essentially bisecting the largest wilderness area in the NE? If NYS and ADK residents cannot derive any tangible benefit from its existence, why should it remain? I feel we should either use it or lose it.

      I believe ultimately the future of the corridor will rely on NYS taxpayers and their wishes for either its use, removal, or modification. Unless a rail savior with deep pockets and a willingness to gamble comes along with funding to upgrade the entire line, there is little for NYS residents to gain from maintaining the status quo. I can agree with a successful rail line or a successful trail or a compromise that allows both or even reversion to a natural state, but I can’t support continuing to allow the bulk of the corridor simply falling into disrepair. So what is our most REALISTIC option?

      • David P. Lubic says:

        “. . .but I can’t support continuing to allow the bulk of the corridor simply falling into disrepair.”

        An incorrect statement; the corridor is in the best condition it’s ever been since the Olympics thanks to the railroad.

        Do a bit of research, and you can find photographs from the late 1980s to the early 1990s that show an impassable railroad, beset with washouts of enormous size and brush and tree growth that looks like a jungle. Nothing, not even snowmobiles could get through that.

        Now, the line is whole, it’s passable as an exempted line, and work proceeds. It’s not going as fast as anybody would like, but that’s how things are when you have to rely on volunteers who have jobs and have some distance to travel to get to work on this project. It is NOT abandoned, despite the false statements made by an ARTA member.

        If you took a look at what the railroad looked like before, what it looks like now, if you had any idea of what the railroad people continue to do to keep it open, and if you take note that part of what is going to be the trail is indeed a section with revenue service, you might agree the rail people have a very good reason to say their work is being “stolen.”

  12. bob says:

    “Actually I think that motorized vehicles can be used for emergency purposes in Wilderness areas. That is the only exception w/o some sort of state of emergency being declared by the state and the constitutional protections temporarily lifted. ”

    Which means they are building a road, not a trail. I have found no details on exactly what they are proposing for a road surface, or width of the trail. How can they come up with an estimate without either of these?

    As soon as the tracks get torn up, the bed will soon follow. Motorcycles, atv’s, 4×4’s, etc.

    What are the plans to police that? As it stands, the rails provide a very good limit to motorized use. Get rid of them and, well…what? Cops running up and down it?

    Just another problem for the local munis to deal with and pay for.

  13. Ryan Lennox says:

    The demand for rail service HAS arrived… so Save The Rails!

    This is the most action the Adirondacks has seen in decades… who are you kidding?

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