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DOT railroad expert Raymond Hessinger is public spokesman for the state's review of the Adironadck rail corridor.  (Photo:  Mark Kurtz)
DOT railroad expert Raymond Hessinger is public spokesman for the state's review of the Adironadck rail corridor. (Photo: Mark Kurtz)

How real is the state's review of the Adirondack rail corridor?

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State officials wrapped up a series of listening sessions last night in Tupper Lake, aimed at gathering public opinion about the rail corridor that runs between Old Forge and Lake Placid.

Hundreds of people have turned out to offer opinions about the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and about the alternative of a multi-purpose trail.

But a growing number of tourism train critics say they're dissatisfied with the way state officials have conducted this review.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

When state officials first unveiled their process to take a second look at the Adirondack rail corridor last June, DEC commissioner Joe  Martens described it this way.

"There needs to be a public process and hopefully a neutral third party that his a referee that tries to sort out with the help of people in the North Country what the future of that corridor should be."

So in theory, this process is a kind of neutral listening session, a chance for state officials to scope how the public feels about the tourism train and the alternative of a multi-purpose recreational trail.

But over the course of three meetings attended by this reporter, state officials could be heard repeatedly expressing significant support for the tourism railroad that now operates over parts of the 120-mile route. 

Ray Hessinger is director of the passenger and freight rail bureau for the DOT and serves as the lead spokesman for this process.

Here he is last night describing his agency’s long-running partnership with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

They've been doing it for more than 20 years now, so there's a demonstrated history there of being able to run the rail service," said Hessinger, responding there to a question about the railroad’s long-term viability.

"We have a 20-year partnership with them in terms of maintenance of the corridor," he added.

Critics of the scenic railroad have long pointed to this relationship between the DOT and the Scenic Railroad as a hurdle. 

Jim McCulley is co-founder of a group called ARTA that supports removing the tracks and building a multi-purpose trail.

"I think we have a real tough row to hoe with the DOT.  I think they're transportation people looking at a recreation corridor."

Indeed, some pro-trail activists are angry that this session, which was originally billed as a formal review of the Unit Management Plan, instead turned out to be an informal series of listening sessions.

That means there aren’t the usual checks and balances designed to preserve impartiality – including a formal public hearing. 

Tony Goodwin, also with ARTA, says he still hopes the process will eventually lead to a more formal review of the corridor plan.

"I'm not that discouraged," he said, noting that the unit management plan in the 1990s also began with a "scoping session."

Train backers, meanwhile, have long pointed to their partnership with the DOT as a strength, suggesting that there is little chance that state officials will allow the rails to be removed to make way for a multi-use trail.

Bethan Maher is the chief executive with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.  She says she hopes this informal process will lead to a final decision that leaves the current unit management plan in place.

If so, her group plans to then ask the Transportation Department for a 20-year lease commitment to the railroad.

"That's essentially standard operating procedure for most railroads that don't own their [tracks], a long-term lease," Maher said.

If the railroad is allowed to remain in place, the organization clearly has a lot of work to do to rebuild support in Adirondack communities where many local government leaders have grown skeptical about the train’s viability and its value to their economies. 

Almost every town along the corridor has passed a resolution calling for a formal unit management plan review, or demanding that the rails be removed immediately.

The Scenic Railroad will also have to win significant government support for rebuilding the rail line which is severely eroded. 

State officials have suggested that that effort could cost as much as $40 million.  Supporters of the railroad say they think it could be accomplished with a taxpayer investment of roughly $15 million. 

A decision about next steps is expected from DEC Commissioner Joe Martens and DOT commissioner Joan McDonald early next year.

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