Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Cuomo Announces Approval Of Adirondack Rail-Trail Plan

Adirondack Scenic RailroadGovernor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday announced approval of a controversial plan to remove state-owned railroad tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake to create a 34-mile multi-use trail. In addition, the state is committed to restoring 45 miles of tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake.

The governor’s announcement is a victory for Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) and a defeat for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad (ASR), which operates a tourist train on a 10-mile stretch of tracks that will be removed. Later in the day, ASR revealed that it recently filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court seeking to save the tracks.

ARTA President Joe Mercurio, who lives in Saranac Lake, said he was thrilled by the governor’s announcement. “ARTA and a great many others have worked long and hard for this,” he said. “Governor Cuomo deserves a huge round of applause for his support. It was the right thing to do.”

The trail would be used by bicyclists, hikers, and others most of the year and by snowmobilers in the winter.

In a news release Tuesday afternoon, the governor’s office said the trail will be finished within three years, at a cost of $8 million. The line south of Tupper Lake will be rehabilitated within the same period, at a cost of $15 million.

“By rehabilitating the railway and building a scenic trail, we are better utilizing the corridor and its surrounding lands to create more economic and recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike,” Cuomo said.

One argument for removing the tracks was that the ASR train that runs between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid does little for the local economy. ARTA and many local officials contend that a recreational trail will attract more tourists.

If the tracks are removed, ASR will have to shut down the Lake Placid train. Also, Rail Explorers USA, a rail-bike operation that started last year in Saranac Lake, will have to relocate.

ASR will still be able to run trains out of Old Forge and eventually extend its excursions all the way to Tupper Lake. The Old Forge train is seen as more successful than the Lake Plaid train.

However, it’s not certain ASR will continue to be the rail operator in the corridor. The state plans to solicit bids for a rail operator.

The entire state-owned rail corridor extends 119 miles from Remsen to Lake Placid and is managed by the state Department of Transportation. The updated management plan for the corridor was drafted by DOT and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which will oversee the construction and maintenance of the recreational trail.

DEC officials said Tuesday that track removal could begin as early as December or, if not then, in the spring. ASR and Rail Explorers can continue to operate on the tracks through November.

Supporters of the railroad have argued, among other things, that removing the tracks would violate the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. They also point out that the corridor and the tracks are on the state and national registers of historic places.

In February, after the Adirondack Park Agency approved the rail-trail plan, ASR started a campaign to raise $100,000 for a legal fight. As of late March, it said it had raised about $40,000.

Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which operates ASR, said in a news release late Tuesday afternoon that the railroad recently filed a lawsuit against DEC and the APA. “We are an important driver of tourism in the Adirondacks, and we cannot understand why DEC is determined to destroy vital transportation infrastructure and the only operator on that infrastructure,” he said.

Steve Engelhart of Adirondack Architectural Heritage also criticized the decision. “We are disappointed by the governor’s announcement, as we feel that the railroad advocates made a strong case for the preservation of the entire 119-mile rail corridor for its economic, social, and cultural value,” Engelhart said. “In addition to destroying a significant section of this National Register-listed historic resource, this decision will shut down a successful local business, Adirondack Rail Explorers, and eliminate the northern operations of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, a popular attraction for area visitors with thousands of riders every year.”

In addition to building a rail trail and fixing up old tracks, the state intends to:

  • Build snowmobile trails near the corridor to connect Tupper Lake and Old Forge and improve snowmobile connections between the Adirondacks and Tug Hill.
  • Evaluate the feasibility of a hut-to-hut cross-country ski trail from Beaver River to Horseshoe Lake.
  • Establish railway stops for visitors and outdoor recreationists.
  • Consult with the State Historic Preservation Office to mitigate the impacts of removing the rails.

Photo by Susan Bibeau of train entering 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.

37 Responses

  1. alex says:

    Phil, it’s Tuesday, not Thursday.

  2. Phil Brown says:

    Updated with news that ASR has filed a lawsuit against DEC and the APA.

  3. josh says:

    Sure hope this trail gets built now….

  4. Lakechamplain says:

    I’m not naive enough to think that this debate is finally ‘over’; hey, this is the Adirondacks we’re dealing with and it’s de rigeur that there’s going to be a lawsuit filed.

    But buoyed by Gov. Cuomo’s decision and tired of the same old battle being fought again here on this issue, I’ll re-suggest some thoughts I’ve posted here before, with an eye to the future. I hope that leaders from Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid, with help from the state, will form some kind of committee(s) to formulate how best to develop this trail to help make it an integral part of the tourist economy for this region. Give the trail an identity to work with, how about the Tri-Lakes Trail, and get people interested and capable(read marketing and tourism experience) to toss about ideas that will help coordinate efforts to make this trail a success during the full year.

    I would hope that the 3 communities will cooperate to create facilities for the trail in their towns; for example a bike route from the trail to the town center where bikers can access businesses in the community for example. How about some shuttle services/rental services to give trail users a variety of options when they access the trail? I would suggest that some sort of grants are available to help fund both studies in this regard and their implementation. And the snowmobile community rightly needs to be involved in this process as well.

    I’ve also noted on these ‘pages’ that this rail/trail conversion has the potential to help the economies of this area’s tourism, especially and obviously the 3 villages. Is this a game changer in and of itself? Of course not, but it can become a cog in an ever-evolving tourist economy. With some vision Tupper Lake especially, which essentially had zero benefit from the tourist train, stands to get some positive feedback here to give more people a reason to visit there. And overall, for young people and young families the existence of a biking trail, even with it’s limited attraction for mt. bikers and others, will add some more ‘to-do’ items to help them decide to visit the Adirondacks.

    I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for the opening ceremony of the trail, but with Cuomo’s decision, maybe this trail will finally happen.

    • Boreas says:

      I agree totally. I hope the bitterness doesn’t spill over into the communities. If everyone would buy in and promote the new configuration, it will improve both the trail and rail outcomes. Otherwise, I am afraid both may languish.

      • Paul says:

        It already has spilled over. This will drag out for at least 5 more years is my guess. Why not go and build some rail trails on some of the other abandoned rail lines while we are waiting.

        • Boreas says:

          Great idea! But will it involve lawsuits because those abandoned railbeds are historical? What about potential rail use in the future?

          • Paul says:

            Probably not as much of a concern. My guess is it tends to be much more contentious when you are talking about converting a rail line with a working RR and other new businesses using it at the time of conversion.

            • Hope says:

              Railbike business was well aware of what may occur on the section of rail they are using. They took the risk. They can operate elsewhere on the corridor if they choose.

              • Paul says:

                Is that safe with a train running? Probably pretty hard to find a rail line w/ a track w/o a train. I agree they knew what might be coming.

  5. Curt Austin says:

    $8M for active outdoor recreation, fully in keeping with the raison d’être of a wilderness park. And a $15M bone thrown to those who have played the “critical transportation infrastructure” card. Let’s hope the latter admit they weren’t being serious, and ask that the $15M be directed towards genuine railroad purposes elsewhere.

    • Boreas says:

      I wonder if that $15M bone will get smaller after the lawsuit is settled?

      • James Falcsik says:

        And if it does so be it. ARPS proceeded with the court filing because they believe the data and process getting to the current decision was deeply flawed. ARPS has considered that risk.

        • mtn man says:

          yes, regrettably the data is flawed on both sides of the debate. Which is more flawed Jim? is anybody’s guess……The ASR has had more than ample time to make something of this entire corridor from Utica to LP……and it has done a great gob from Utica to Old Forge, but maybe they should continue with that and let the rest of the corridor try something new.

          • James Falcsik says:

            It is not anybody’s guess as to which is more flawed. It is clearly evident the visitor totals projected are exaggerated. It is clearly demonstrated the primary purpose overnight visitor totals of example trails were erroneously reported as much higher than EIS totals; don’t forget ARTA admitted these were wrong.

            ASR had 20 years of broken promises of a long term lease arrangement, something the 1996 UMP noted as an impediment to commercial development. The DEC dropped the ball on the trail development for the same 20 year period. The 1996 UMP was never fully executed and blaming ASR for the lack of ridership or development in the communities where they could not operate is ridiculous.

            So try something new even though the economics are based on flawed methodology.

            • AdkBuddy says:

              As I have heard many times already, ASR will lose the lawsuit as you don’t beat the state in state court. Save your money and stop wasting time.

  6. Edward Cantor says:

    This just seems wrong. We’re destroying existing businesses, ripping up part of our heritage all for some ‘future’ tourism and yet more snowmobile trails. Aren’t there enough already?

    • Hope says:

      Already new businesses are online in anticipation. Languishing properties are being sold and new ideas being explored. This is just the catalyst that is needed.

      • Paul says:

        What businesses and what properties – because this small rail trail is coming? If they are banking on this trail they could be very disappointed. The other rail trails that have been compared for these estimations are long trails interconnected with other rail trails in closer proximity to much larger populations. This is just 25 miles with nothing connected and really nothing in-between.

        I am glad that this is closer to a resolution since I am so tired of hearing about it and seeing my neighbors and friends arguing about it. I hope this goes well but from what I have seen on both sides of the argument it looks like wild exaggeration.

        Hope at times you have made it sound like Tupper Lake’s future depends on this flat dusty rail/snowmobile trail.

        • Hope says:

          Well no no one idea, including the ACR development, is going to lift any community economically but a lot off different ideas will come together and together they can lift up a community. Several properties have been sold or are currently under contract in proximity to the RR. Some for private use and others for commercial use. Why are you such a naysayer all the time? Try being positive and supportive of new endeavors. It’s time to stop arguing and move forward with implementation. It’s a new day for Tupper, Saranac and Placid. And, a good day at that.

          • Boreas says:

            I agree. A rail whistle-stop on the way to Paradise (LP??) wouldn’t have much of an effect on TL’s plans – especially if ACR never comes to fruition. Time for something new.

        • Boreas says:

          That is kind of a glass 1/4 full attitude. You seem to be neglecting the fact that it will be the terminus for the train – as well as the terminus of the recreation trail. It will only be a snowmobile/ski trail in the winter.

          It’s a compromise. Both groups get a little of what we want and TL will likely benefit. I really don’t see the downside. But then, I am not a train fanatic…

          • Paul says:

            I am just thinking about this from a practical perspective, my view on it doesn’t matter.

            Hope I have not been that negative, just on what I consider crazy wild predictions on what a small trail like that will bring to the area. I do think the glass is about 25% full on that one. Like I have said I hope I am wrong.

            Like I have said several time here the “new” idea that I think should have been considered is turning the RR into a full time year round tourism train. Get rid of these big clanky diesel trains and replace them with a new smaller gauge electric train that can whiz quietly through the woods delivering hikers and paddlers to new remote trail heads and put ins (canoes and Kayaks on the train). To me that seems like a cool new idea that isn’t duplicated anywhere in the country. For this to have any chance for that to be successful it has to be connected to the largest population centers in the Park (SL and LP). But I also understand that it is probably impractical as well.

            • Hope says:

              ASR is not about clean, electric transportation. They love their old smoke spewing diesels as much as snowmobilers love their machines. Shoot they want to bring back wood fired steam locomotives as well.

              • Paul says:

                This is one of the things I found interesting about this debate. It really gets people fired up to pull out all the stops when criticizing the other side. Very contentious. Even when group has basically gotten what they want they still can’t resist the temptation.

                Now that this is close to done I have a serious question that never seems to get answered.

                Phil, maybe you can help me. In Saranac Lake where the trail will cross 7 roads and the Saranac River on a high bridge in a space of about a mile what is that going to look like as a trail and how will that be kept safe for some of these younger riders that we plan to see?

                • Curt Austin says:

                  This is something that I find interesting: there are thousands of bike trails all over the country (not here, of course), but perfectly ordinary things about this one – crossings, for example – are questioned as if it’s a new concept.

                  Railroad grade crossings are not new, either.

            • Phil Brown says:

              They will still be able to drop off paddlers and hikers south of Tupper Lake.

              • Paul says:

                No, I understand that but I am skeptical that a full blown tourism train would be very successful cut off from the two largest towns in the Park. I have always thought that this should be all one thing or all the other.

                • mtn man says:

                  Paul – they had the opportunity to run a tourist RR from OF to LP for 20+ years….should we wait another 20?

                  …just asking

        • James Falcsik says:

          Rather than listen to any projections, why not look at existing conditions of trail towns where trails have been extant for decades. Not the fancy published prose from the trail advocacy, but real demographics from other sources. The Great Allegheny Passage presents these study opportunities. Plenty of length, and plenty of population. Connellsville, a trail town that lost more than 12,000 residents between 2000 and 2010 was recently in the news for losing another 3000+ since 2010 because job growth has been virtually zero year after year. The trail economy has been there since 1990. West Newton, another GAP trail town, has more empty storefronts than occupied. Folks have complained on social media that nobody on the trail will cross the Yough River bridge to even buy a cup of coffee. If your business is within feet of the trail you may see a slight increase in business, but the further away the lower the impact by great magnitude. These are not projections, but actual conditions.

  7. Bellota says:

    Bravo, Governor Cuomo. Individuals and families need a safe and scenic place to recreate, especially when it comes to bicycling. I look forward to its completion. I’m 75, will I get the opportunity to use the rail/trail when I hit 80?

  8. Scott says:

    Either way, historical or economical, trains do not belong in the Adirondack back country.

  9. Mark says:

    I guess the Gov. and the committee failed to look at other trails and the lack of business they have brought to those areas. There isn’t any data showing an increase of business from bike and foot traffic that had any long term significance. A mult-use trail along side the rail corridor would have been a better plan.

  10. roamin with broman says:

    Let’s get going on this trail. There will be a ton of bikers using it for sure.

    Too bad the snowmobilers are still screwed by the presence of the rails north of Old Forge……….

  11. Stephen Kling says:

    As a long-distance cyclist, be assured that a 30-40 mile trail in the middle of nowhere will not attract serious bike tourists. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is a destination to cyclists from around the world because it 1) connects to the already -well-known C&O Canal bike trail, and together they’re over 300 miles; 2) offer a multi-day biking-camping experience, with campgrounds and picturesque little towns along the way; 3) has 2 big cities at the ends, Pittsburgh and Washington, with shuttle services, bike shops, and major tourist facilities.
    Coincidentally, I rode a 400-mile loop last September circumnavigating the Adirondacks, and found the roads to be beautiful, well-maintained and virtually deserted. I saw only 3-4 other cyclists over a whole week. Campgrounds were empty. If this is typical, you don’t need a bike trail of the type being discussed.
    My so-who-asked-you opinion? Go big. A no-cars bike route from Albany to Montreal through the Adirondacks that would give the GAP a run for its money. That would get people to come from Europe, the Americas, everywhere. A world-class cycling destination.