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Rosalie Fontana of Bloomingdale voices her thoughts to DEC Forester Sean Reynolds, who was taking notes at the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor meeting at the DEC office in Ray Brook. Photo: Mark Kurtz
Rosalie Fontana of Bloomingdale voices her thoughts to DEC Forester Sean Reynolds, who was taking notes at the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor meeting at the DEC office in Ray Brook. Photo: Mark Kurtz

One fiercely disputed Adirondack rail line, two cool visions

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For more than thirty years, most of the historic rail line between Old Forge and Lake Placid has seen little use. A tourism train operates on two different stretches of track, around Old Forge and Saranac Lake.

But despite a state plan that calls for the entire 119-mile route to reopen, much of the line has fallen into disrepair. Now state officials are asking new questions about how the train corridor should be used. They've begun a series of meetings to gather input and to try to channel a public debate that has grown increasingly rancorous.

There are now two starkly different visions for the rail corridor. Train boosters are calling for the state to invest millions of dollars refurbishing the tracks, while supporters of a new mult-iuse trail say the tracks should be torn up.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

It’s a weekday afternoon in Ray Brook and Conservation Department spokesman David Winchell is trying to sort out how to handle an overflow crowd of people who’ve come to talk about trains and trails.

"We weren't expecting quite this big a crowd," Winchell acknowledged.

This week, the DEC and the state Transportation Department launched a series of public meetings, a chance for residents and activists to give input on how the 119-mile corridor should be used.

In one corner of this packed meeting room, Gretchen Goodroy from Ray Brook is voicing her concerns about what might happen if the train tracks are torn up and a multi-use trail takes its place.

"I think that brings in a two-lane highway of snowmobiles, and who polices that?" she asks.

So here are the competing visions in a nutshell.  One vision, the one Gretchen Goodroy is raising doubts about, would convert most of the corridor into a year-round multi-use trail. That means snowmobiles, skiers and snow-shoers in the winter, with bikers, walkers and hikers in the summer.

The other, competing vision would have most of the line operate as a tourism railroad in summer, bringing passengers all the way through the Adirondacks from Old Forge to Lake Placid.

That’s the vision embraced by people like John Urtz from Oneida, New York, who volunteers for the railroad.  He spoke at the gathering Monday night in Old Forge.

"Young, old, disabled—families of all shapes and sizes can ride the train and see the Adirondack wilderness," he said.

The trouble here is that both sides have cool, attractive and fun visions for the corridor and both sides are convinced that their vision is the right one.

Critics like Jeffrey Wood from Saranac Lake say the train has been tried for decades and just never caught on.

"No question the rails should be taken up.  Snowmobiling and bicycling would bring more business into the area.  Seems like a no-brainer to me."

Lee Keet is cofounder of a group called ARTA that has pushed hard for the train tracks to be scrapped so that a rails-to-trails project can take its place.

He says the idea that taxpayers should invest another $15 million to refurbish the tracks—as railroad supporters propose—is a nonstarter.

"Would you spend $5 million to send 7,000 people [a year] into the Adirondacks—of taxpayer money?  Certainly not 15 [million]," he said.

The pro-trail side has gained significant traction over the last couple of years.  Almost every town along the rail corridor has called for the state to either tear up the tracks or to open a formal unit management plan process to come up with new uses for the corridor.

Even some strong train advocates, like Assemblywoman Janet Duprey from Peru NY, say they now have real questions about which option is better.

"I happen to be of an age where I'm not going to go out and hike it and bike it, so I think there's some validity to that, but I think on the other hand we have to be realistic."

Duprey says she’ll respect whatever decision the state reaches for the corridor’s future. 

She also dismissed the idea, put forward by some train advocates, that both visions could be realized together, with the railroad operating side-by-side with a new multi-use trail.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad train passes through Ray Brook.  Photo: Mark Kurtz
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad train passes through Ray Brook. Photo: Mark Kurtz
"Even if it were fiscally feasible, I think there are places where it can't happen, because of wetlands" and other obstacles, Duprey says.

Railroad supporters, too, are convinced that their vision is the right one; they argued from the start that this public meeting process was unnecessary.

Bethan Maher, executive officer for the Scenic Railroad, says what’s needed isn’t a new unit management plan, but more investment by New York State.

"We're not reaching our full potential and I don't think anyone's denying that.  We're holding our own, but there is rebuilding work that needs to be done.  The state owns the tracks," she notes.

The railroad’s new business plan calls for the state and Federal governments to invest roughly $15.5 million reopening the line through the heart of the Adirondacks.

Maher, who spoke in Old Forge, says that kind of service along the entire line would bring far more economic activity than a multi-use trail.

In Old Forge, state officials write public comments on big wall-pads.  They say this input will shape big decisions about whether or not to reopen the train corridor's official management plan. Photo: Brian Mann
In Old Forge, state officials write public comments on big wall-pads. They say this input will shape big decisions about whether or not to reopen the train corridor's official management plan. Photo: Brian Mann
"There's not a lot of potential for trail development along the way.  It's all forever wild.  There's no area to build shops and restaurants.  What the railroad can do is drop people off at trails that are otherwise inaccessible to a large number of people."

Al Dunham from Saranac Lake, who volunteers on the railroad’s board of directors, helped write the tourist train’s new business plan.  He’s convinced that the railroad is will be a tourism draw big enough to warrant another infusion of taxpayer dollars.

"Absolutely.  We see the economic impact spent by travelers is about $5.5 million per year for all the communities," he said.

So with both sides confident that they’re right, state officials are basically caught in the middle. 

NYS DOT Freight & Passenger Rail Bureau Director Raymond Hessinger presents at the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor meeting at the DEC Region 5 office in Ray Brook. Photo: Mark Kurtz
NYS DOT Freight & Passenger Rail Bureau Director Raymond Hessinger presents at the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor meeting at the DEC Region 5 office in Ray Brook. Photo: Mark Kurtz
Ray Hessinger with the Transportation Department, says when these public meetings are done, the DOT and the Conservation Department will then decide whether enough questions have been raised to warrant a full rewrite of the rail corridor’s management plan.

"DOT and DEC will make a recommendation to our commissioners as to what we should do," he said.  "Should we continue to move forward with the unit management plan that we already have in place?  Or is there a need to amend it and revise it?"

That would mean a second series of formal public hearings.

Which means that, in a sense, these meetings are a kind of trail balloon, a chance for the state to measure the mood in the Adirondacks. 

Lee Keet, with ARTA, says the real goal here for both sides this month, train advocates and trail boosters, is to get their message to the commissioners and to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

"If the governor says 'I'd really like to do this,' it'll get done quickly," Keet said.  "[Cuomo] could make this happen in a hurry.  That's what we're counting on.  If we don't get to the governor, all bets are off."

These meetings resume later this month with sessions on September 16 in Utica and on September 17 in Tupper Lake. 

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