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Should the Adirondack train keep rolling or be replaced by a rec path?  (NCPR file photo)
Should the Adirondack train keep rolling or be replaced by a rec path? (NCPR file photo)

Debate over scenic railroad accelerates in Adirondacks

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Opponents of a tourist train in the Tri-Lakes are hoping to derail efforts to construct a side-by-side rail and trail system between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates formed earlier this summer. They say, instead of a rail, communities should build a multi-use recreational trail using the rail-bed which would stretch from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake.

But with millions of dollars in grants already in hand, supporters of the tourist train say the path and the railroad can co-exist. Chris Morris reports.

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

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Rusty Russum lives and breathes for the railroad. Leaning against a railing in the open air car on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, he recalls spending time at his parent’s camp in Otter Lake, not far from Old Forge.

As a youngster attending services at the Otter Lake Community Church, he would look past the preacher and count the freight cars as they chugged past.

“I fell in love with this railroad back then, when I was just a child,” he says. “Rode it a lot as a young man, and when the opportunity came to actually work on the railroad, I jumped at it. Just because it’s here and I love it.”

Russum is the conductor for the Scenic Railroad. He’s driven the route between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake hundreds of times.

“This is Route 86,” Rusty says. “We may have to take a pause here. It’s an awful lot of noise.”

Surrounding us are tourists from all walks of life and, for these passengers at least, the train is a big draw.

 “I feel that there are a lot of hiking trails in the Adirondacks, and if you eliminate this, it eliminates stuff for us senior citizens, who can’t walk the trails,” said Jan Dykhuizen of Cincinnati, Ohio.

 “This at least gives us something that we can do so that we can see the area around here. If you take this train out, I’m not going to walk it.”

 Jeff Hutchins from South Carolina says the railroad has historic significance. He says he also believes in compromise.

 “I think you want to look for an opportunity to embrace both, but I think, personally, taking out the tracks would be a bummer,” he said.

 But trail advocates Lee Keet and Jim McCulley say the costs of maintaining the railroad outweigh the benefits.

Walking the tracks near Lake Colby in Saranac Lake, Lee Keet of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates points out where the railroad is deteriorating.

The two men walk the tracks in Saranac Lake as they cross Lake Colby.

They think the tourist train has failed from an economic standpoint, and it’s time to try something new.

Keet says a multiuse trail would do a lot more to invigorate the region’s economy.

“The added benefit to the communities, the tying of the communities together, the cost of the installation, the cost of the maintenance, the numbers of visitors it will attract to the region – any other measure you want – the recreational trail wins,” he says. “There’s no argument that can be made where the railroad wins, and I’ll state that categorically. If somebody can dispute it, I’m all ready to debate them.”

This spring, Keet and McCulley helped form Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates – known as ARTA.  The new organization wants to rip up these tracks in order to build a multiuse recreational path from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake.

McCulley, an avid snowmobiler, points to a spot where the rail bed itself seems in danger of slipping into Lake Colby.

“At one time, it might have been quite a railroad causeway, but at this point it’s becoming an eroded danger to the entire area by allowing a train to cross it,” he says. “I know when I groom this during the winter time, this is the scariest part of grooming that you’ve ever seen, because of the issue with snow blow-off and such. When we take the 8-foot wide groomer across it, it feels like you’re falling into the lake pretty much the entire way.”

Keet and McCulley say time has run out on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

 After 11 years of operation, they say ridership is low and Keets says proposed compromises, like a side-by-side trail, would be too expensive and do too much damage to the environment.

 “In order to have a trail and a rail you need no less than 30 feet of width,” he says. “So imagine what would have to happen if you were to add 20 feet to this. The amount of fill you’d have to put into Lake Colby, Little Colby, or both, would be enormous – the cost would be enormous. And the idea that the APA [Adirondack Park Agency] would ever let you just pour that amount of fill into a lake in the 21st centur is kind of nonsense.”

During an August meeting hosted by ARTA, nearly 200 people packed the conference room at Lake Placid’s Crowne Plaza Resort to hear a presentation touting the benefits of a recreational trail.

The keynote speaker was Carl Knoch from the National Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Pointing to other successful rail-to-trail conversion projects, he argued that a multi-use trail in the Tri-Lakes would be a big draw for tourists.

“If you build it, they will come – and they will spend money.”

Knoch says a similar 60-mile path in Pennsylvania known as the Pine Creek Rail Trail attracted 138,000 users a year and generates more than three and a half million dollars in revenue annually.

“In talking to the folks who own businesses along the Pine Creek Rail Trail, they basically say the conversion of that railroad into a multi-season rail trail was the salvation of their valley.”

This debate has created some strange alliances – take McCulley, a snowmobile enthusiast, partnering up with environmental activists against the train.

The debate has also created new rivalries, with North Elba town officials generally sour on the train concept and Tupper Lake’s leaders supporting it. 

Another strong fan of the train is Kate Fish, with the Adirondack North Country Association.

She says $3 million dollars in grant monies earmarked for a side-by-side rail and trail project can’t be used solely on a recreation trail.

“I think the idea of reallocation is a non-starter.”

Fish says the idea a trail running alongside the railroad should satisfy everyone.

“I just think: we’ve got the money in place, the permit is there, we have a chance of having this trail between Lake Placid and Ray Brook by probably as early as the start of next winter – so let’s get on with it,” Fish said.

Earlier this month, North Elba voted to move forward with construction of a side-by-side rail-and-trail that will stretch as far as Ray Brook.

But, for trail advocates like Lee Keet and Jim McCulley, the battle over the rail corridor is far from over.

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