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Public hearings on the future of the rail corridor were held last fall.  What comes next and when?  No one's certain. Photo: Brian Mann
Public hearings on the future of the rail corridor were held last fall. What comes next and when? No one's certain. Photo: Brian Mann

Adirondack rails-trails debate still stuck "in limbo"

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Eight months have passed since New York state officials announced that they were opening a review of the future use of the historic rail corridor between Old Forge and Lake Placid. The move followed growing pressure from local government leaders and activists critical of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which now operates seasonal excursion trains on sections of the line.

Supporters see the railroad as a potential tourism attraction that could draw visitors from all over the world. Critics say the project has been a boondoggle and should be replaced by a multi-purpose trail. The debate has sharply divided communities and interest groups in the park.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Adirondack Scenic Railroad train in Old Forge. Photo: Bradley O'Brien, CC some rights reserved
Adirondack Scenic Railroad train in Old Forge. Photo: Bradley O'Brien, CC some rights reserved
It was June of last year when a press release said officials would explore public sentiment about the 119-mile rail corridor. They stopped short of formally reopening the Unit Management Plan (UMP), a legally binding document that now shapes management of the line; but the state departments of Conservation and Transportation did hold a series of public meetings, gathering input from local residents, activists and government leaders.

That process wrapped up last September. Speaking earlier last week during a visit to Lake Clear, Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens acknowledged frustration with the slow process, but said a careful review is warranted.

DEC Commissioner Joe Martens. Photo: Matt Ryan for Innovation Trail
DEC Commissioner Joe Martens. Photo: Matt Ryan for Innovation Trail
"My staff and DOT staff have been reviewing the hundreds and hundreds of comments," Martens said. "Like every issue, there's lots of dimensions to it." In an interview with WNBZ radio, Martens went on to describe the existing tourist railroad as "a terrific resource, both recreationally and environmentally."

During that same visit, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he has chosen to stay out of the debate until his commissioners reach some conclusion. "I'm going to ask for the right advice on that decision and we have a number of agencies looking at it," Cuomo said.

Partisans on both sides of the debate have continued to lobby and hold conversations with state officials behind the scenes. Dom Jacangelo heads the New York state Snowmobile Association, which supports tearing up the railroad tracks.

He says he's comfortable with the timetable of the state's review so far. "There's a process taking place now, I'm looking forward to the outcome of that process, just so we can get all the facts on the table," Jacangelo said.

But some local government leaders, including Bob Bevilacqua, Town Supervisor in Harrietstown, which includes much of Saranac Lake, says the state should move quickly to open a formal review of the Unit Management Plan. "We just want them to open the UMP and start the discussion, something that should have happened about 12 years ago. It hasn't happened yet, it's in limbo," he said.

Adirondack Scenic Railroad executive Bethan Maher. Photo:  Brian Mann
Adirondack Scenic Railroad executive Bethan Maher. Photo: Brian Mann
A dozen local governments along the corridor have passed resolutions urging the state to reopen the UMP or simply to tear up the tracks immediately. That's a move that train supporters believe would cripple their opportunity to revitalize the corridor, a project that's been underway since the 1990s. Bethan Maher, the railroad's top executive, spoke to North Country Public Radio last year and said, financially, "I think we're in a much better place than we were in past years," she said, describing the tourism train as "self-sufficient."

State officials have suggested that they're trying to find some kind of accord that will satisfy train boosters, while also satisfying skeptics. But Martens acknowledged last week that finding that kind of accord won't be easy: "We want to do what's right for the North Country and continue to engage local communities up here to get to the right spot."

Last year, state officials said on background that a decision about how to move forward would likely come early in 2014. But as spring approaches, there's still no fixed deadline for when the DOT and DEC will announced their conclusions.

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