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The Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Photo: <a href="">Matt Johnson</a>, CC <a href="">some rights reserved</a>
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Photo: Matt Johnson, CC some rights reserved

Understanding the Adirondack Scenic Railroad controversy

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This week, North Country Public Radio has been looking in-depth at the fierce debate over the future of the 90-mile rail corridor that stretches from Old Forge to Lake Placid. Train boosters hope to see the state of New York invest millions of dollars reviving the entire line into a world-class seasonal tourism railroad, likely operated by the Utica-based non-profit Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

But a growing number of critics, including many local government leaders in the Park, want the state to consider reinventing the corridor as a year-round multi-use "rail-to-trail" destination.

Brian Mann and Martha Foley spoke about where all this goes next.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Martha Foley: First, why has this been so divisive? For those of us who don't live along the rail corridor, it seems like a strange issue for people to be so passionate and so angry about.

Brian Mann: Yeah, that surprised me at times, too. I get more angry emails on this issue, from both sides, than on any other story I report. But here's the thing: Train boosters tend to be really deeply in love with railroads, especially a historic line like this one. And for more than 20 years, they've been fighting against incredible odds to realize this vision of an amazing tourism train that would pass through places like Lake Lila and the edge of the St. Regis canoe area.

But on the other hand, you've got equally passionate activists who've come to believe that this train idea just hasn't worked, despite decades of taxpayer investment, despite tens of millions of dollars spent already by New York state, and despite all the goodwill of the train supporters. And they think the vision of the train is standing in the way of a more realistic, more affordable tourism attraction, which is this rails-to-trails idea that would allow snowmobilers, hikers, skiers and bicyclists to access a really cool resource.

MF: Last year, the state initially announced that they would reopen the unit management plan that governs use of this line, but they then backtracked and announced that they would just do an informal review of the corridor. How come?

BPM: I've never really been able to get a clear answer on that. It was a surprising switch and even some state officials were taken off-guard by the change.

What it means is that we're not really waiting for the state to decide firmly and finally about the corridor's future. Instead, what we're waiting for is a decision about whether to open the formal, lengthy public hearing process that might lead to an actual change.

MF: Right and we've heard from some local government leaders along the corridor who are pretty frustrated with the delay and the layers of bureaucracy. Speaking last fall, the state Transportation Department's Ray Hessinger said the state would have an idea much sooner about how to move forward. Here's what he told a crowd about the DOT's timeline. 

"We have a lot of digesting to do, to read through all that correspondence and understand all the issues. Now, we're hoping to make that recommendation."

By the end of the year, he says, meaning last year. We're nearly four months past that now and state officials still seem really uncertain about what to do next.

BPM: That's right. Gov. Andrew Cuomo seems to be the sort of guy who likes to get clear wins whenever possible. State officials have told me that they're searching for some kind of compromise, some kind of middle way. But this is one of those decisions, a bit like hydro-fracking, where a decision either way is likely to make a lot of people mad.

And on this issue you have very powerful and influential people and groups on both sides. You have a lot of local government leaders who want the unit plan reopened or the tracks torn up immediately to make way for a trail. But you have the North Country Chamber of Commerce and state Sen. Betty Little still pushing for the vision of a scenic railroad. 

MF: You mentioned a middle way. There has been talk of building a parallel trail, having essentially both projects side-by-side. Is that feasible?

BPM: This idea does get mentioned a lot, primarily by train supporters, but I can't find anyone with technical knowledge of trail building who says this is feasible except perhaps in short sections. The reason is that the railroad runs through a huge stretch of the corridor across wetlands and through very narrow chunks of solid ground, sometimes surrounded by water.

I've traveled the entire stretch and it's obvious that building a parallel trail in sections would be a really big, expensive lift. Lake Placid looked closely at spending millions of dollars on a side-by-side trail just from Lake Placid to Ray Brook and found that the financial, technical and environmental challenges were just too large.

Another idea that gets kicked around is simply dividing up the corridor, having the railroad operate from Utica to Old Forge, or perhaps to Big Moose Lake or even to Tupper Lake and having a rail-to-trail on remaining sections of the line. So we'll see if the state decides to explore any of those options.

MF: Brian, one thing that caught my ear in your series of reports is that once the state decides about the future of this corridor, rail or trail, there's still a lot of hard work and a lot of uncertainty to come.

BPM: Yeah, I think that's right. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad has scored some big successes in recent years, paying down their debt and extending the usable section of the train track to Big Moose Lake.

But they've really struggled, too. This is a very small non-profit, run almost entirely by volunteers. They don't have much in the way of cash reserves. They've been repairing their train cars under a bridge because they lost the lease on their maintenance facility. And so far they've refused to release a detailed business plan for how they would expand and how they would grow to really make this line a success.

And it's important to point out that running a railroad is hard. I do a lot of reporting on transportation issues and on railroads in particular, and I think a lot of people don't get how complicated this is. It's not like running a farmer's market or an arts collective. You're talking about running diesel locomotives through some of the wildest, most challenging terrain in the east—hopefully with a lot of passengers aboard.

It's also still unclear how much taxpayer money it would take to revive the full line. The railroad suggests it would cost about $15 million. But state officials in the past have suggested that it might cost upwards of $40 million.

MF: But the rails-to-trail project is also no slam dunk. You found some big questions about the plan for rebuilding the corridor into a year-round trail.

BPM: Right. This surprised me in my reporting. Adirondack Recreation Trail Advocates, the group pushing the rail-trail idea, has suggested through this debate that turning the railroad line into a long trail could happen really quickly and cheaply.

But so far, ARTA by their own admission has done very little of the legwork that would be needed to make that happen, in terms of fundraising or organization building. Instead, they've suggested that New York state will do the heavy lifting. And I just can't find any state officials who think that's likely any time soon, especially in an age of budget and staff cutting in Albany.

That doesn't mean rails-to-trails isn't feasible. But other similar projects have taken years and in some cases decades to be built and it's required a lot of work by local communities and volunteers.

One caveat here is that snowmobile enthusiasts say that simply by tearing up the tracks you would greatly enhance the corridor as a winter recreation resource immediately, allowing weeks of extra riding for sledders between Old Forge and Lake Placid. For some snowmobile boosters, that gain alone would be very valuable.

MF: So any predictions about when a decision might come and what it might be?

BPM: I think it comes fairly soon, the next month or so, but I have no idea what the decision is going to be. I've spoken on background with a lot of state officials and they sound truly stuck and conflicted on this one. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations underway, and more of that to come. So we'll see if the Cuomo administration can pull out some kind of compromise.

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