By Tim Rowland
The Adirondack Park Agency gave final approval Thursday to a rail trail and scenic railroad plan that has taken years to finalize and in its time became one of the most contentious projects to come before the board.
In its final incarnation, the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor Unit Management Plan drew nearly 800 public comments over the winter, many from die-hard rail buffs or die-hard recreationists who believed their opponents were getting too great a share of the pie.
Nor did the plan go down without a fight, although a mild one, as APA members disagreed over the adequacy of planning for the full impact of the project.
The issue made for some strange bedfellows, as bicyclists and hikers found themselves on the same side as snowmobilers, who wanted more of the corridor to be used as a rail trail — a concept that drew the ire, and a legal challenge, from rail buffs who were insistent that scenic trains be allowed to run all the way to Lake Placid.
Ultimately, the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Transportation settled on a compromise that rips up the tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake for a multi-use trail, but maintains the line to the southwest for what APA Planner Walt Linck called “a truly beautiful and remote 45-mile stretch.”
The two will meet in Tupper lake, which anticipates an economic boost from its role as the line’s central junction.
The remaining public concern over the project, as expressed in the comments, dealt with issues of historic preservation and the protection of natural resources. The state agencies worked with state historical interests to be sure their concerns were addressed, and added a historical evaluation to the management plan. The addition is designed to give people a greater appreciation of what the railroad meant to the Adirondacks during its years of operation from the early 1890s through 1972.
The corridor is narrow — just 100 feet in width — but unprecedented in its reach. It touches 11 other units under state management on its 119 mile journey, while touching on some of the more remote areas of the park.
Concerns were raised by the public over protections for these sensitive areas, but the state believes it can control the number and scope of visitors to these sites through ticket sales and managing the numbers of people who hop the train flag stops along the route.
But board member Chad Dawson, who was a lone and “reluctant” vote against passage, said the plan doesn’t do enough to anticipate what effect the line will have long-term. Such issues need to be planned for in advance, he said, to preclude potential problems. An example of the failure to plan long-term, he said, occurred in the High Peaks where overuse gained critical mass before it could be addressed and managed.
Dawson said he felt the compromise is a good plan, but that the agency missed an opportunity to look at it in a greater, and more regional context.
Board member Art Lussi, however, said that after all this time the plan is ready to go, and changes can be made as needed. “They’re not asking to cut any trees,” he said. “This is 100 feet by more than 100 miles that’s ready to be used.”
Rail refurbishment for the scenic railroad is expected to be completed by 2021, and the rail trail by 2023. The DEC did not answer emailed questions about how the state’s current virus-related financial problems might impact the project.