Go the distance with rail trails

Other regions are ahead of the Adirondacks in creating bike trails.
Other regions are ahead of the Adirondacks in creating bike trails.

After five years of public debate the Adirondacks are on the verge of seeing a new rail trail that should prove to be an important tourist draw and a recreational opportunity in keeping with the natural beauty it will traverse. But at the same time, the state government may settle for a compromise that will keep the recreational trail from becoming the truly exceptional resource that it could be.

And as we near decisions about what to do with that rail line between Lake Placid and Big Moose, another proposed rail trail deserves serious consideration, this one stretching from Saratoga Springs to Tahawus. If New York fully embraces the potential of these trail ideas, the Adirondacks could become a major destination as a cycling center.

In June the state Department of Environmental Conservation released a draft proposal calling for removing thirty-four miles of tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and converting the corridor into a multi-use trail for cycling, hiking, snowmobiling, and other activities. The plan also calls for upgrading the rail for fortyfive miles from Tupper Lake south to Big Moose to allow for a tourist-train service from Utica.

DEC has been taking public comment on the plan and is expected to submit a final proposal to the Adirondack Park Agency by the end of the year.

DEC’s draft is a compromise between those who would like the whole length of the rail line upgraded for train traffic and those who want the full distance converted to rail trail. Those who favor the compromise believe the two uses, trail and rail, take best advantage of the character of the two different stretches of rail line. And it’s true that the trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake will draw on the already robust tourist industry in that area. Businesses already in the vicinity are well positioned to offer services to the visitors. This piece of the proposal is a clear winner.

But it’s far from clear that enough visitors would ride the seasonal train from Big Moose to Tupper Lake to justify the $11 million projected cost of necessary track upgrades and the estimated $67,000 a year in annual maintenance. The current tourist service between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake has not been a financial success, nor has a tourist train on another line between Saratoga Springs and North Creek.

A rail trail would have a greater appeal for repeat visitors and for drawing people who see the trail as a destination, not a one-time add-on to a vacation. The state estimates that a trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake would draw seventy-four thousand visitors outside the winter months. And studies commissioned by advocates project even larger numbers of visitors.

The state should revise its plan and give another chance to a full-length rail trail for the seventy-nine miles between Lake Placid and Big Moose. It doesn’t have to commit to the longer rail trail now but just agree to take the time to fully assess the success of the Lake Placidto-Tupper trail and study more thoroughly the marketing prospects for the proposed rail segment. If it delays refurbishing the tracks long enough to gather this additional information, chances are good it will see the wisdom of pulling up all the tracks. If the experience indicates otherwise, it can then approve the tourist train.

As the discussion about what to do on the Lake Placidto-Big Moose rail line may be approaching a landmark decision, talk of another rail trail farther south is beginning to gain strength. Iowa Pacific owns the Saratoga & North Creek Railway, which has been operating a tourist train from Saratoga Springs to North Creek for four years. And it had announced plans to run freight trains to haul mine tailings from a former titanium mine in Tahawus using the northern section of that line called the Sanford Lake Branch.

But this summer the railroad said that it has been losing money on the tourist train and that it has not hauled out the mine waste. It did say it plans to store out-of-service railroad oil tankers on the Sanford Lake Branch. The financial difficulties of the railroad and the utter inappropriateness of the tanker-storage idea give new impetus to ideas for converting the Saratoga Springs to Tahawus rail line to a multi-use trail. (At press time the railroad said it’s plans were up in the air. Story, page 14.)

As advocated by Friends of the Upper Hudson Rail Trail, the trail could run eighty-seven miles along the full route. Or if it used only the North Creek-to-Tahawus branch it would traverse twenty-nine miles, including scenic stretches along the Hudson, Boreas, and Opalescent Rivers. Different stretches of the line are owned by the Town of Corinth and Warren County. The railroad operates with an easement for the branch north of Warren County, though legal questions persist about whether that line should have reverted to forever-wild state Forest Preserve years ago.

So the legal path to acquiring and unifying this route into a rail trail may be involved. But the end result would be an attraction with far greater economic potential than the train offers and with the kind of sustainable recreational and health benefits that best fit the Adirondack setting.

—Tom Woodman, Publisher

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