Despite agency’s vote, train supporters say the long battle over the state-owned rail corridor is not over.
By Phil Brown
The Adirondack Park Agency voted 9-1 in February to approve a controversial proposal to split a state-owned rail corridor into a rail segment and a trail segment, but the debate over the best use of the corridor is not over.
The proposal calls for removing thirty-four miles of track between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and fixing up forty-five miles of largely unused track between Tupper Lake and Big Moose.
If implemented, Adirondack Scenic Railroad will have to discontinue a seasonal tourist train that runs ten miles between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. A newer business, Rail Explorers USA, which offers rail-bike excursions, will be forced to relocate from Saranac Lake.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) had pushed for a trail, arguing that it would do more for the local economy than the tourist train does.
Tony Goodwin, an ARTA board member, applauded the APA’s decision but said he won’t be surprised if a lawsuit is filed by rail supporters. “It’s not over until the contractor moves in and actually removes the rails,” he remarked.
After the APA vote, the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which operates the nonprofit railroad, vowed in a news release to continue fighting to preserve the rails. But Bill Branson, the society’s president, told the Explorer that no decisions have been made about how to wage the fight. “I would like to think the railroad would not be involved in litigation, but you never know,” Branson said.
The state-owned corridor stretches 119 miles from Remsen (south of the Park) to Lake Placid. South of Remsen, the tracks lead to Utica, where Adirondack Scenic Railroad is based. ASR also runs tourist trains out of Utica and Old Forge, sometimes going as far north as Big Moose.
The state’s plan will not affect ASR’s operations south of Big Moose. The dispute is over the seventy-nine miles of track between Big Moose and Lake Placid. Most of this track is in disrepair. The exception is the ten-mile stretch from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid.
ARTA had urged the state to remove all seventy-nine miles of track to create a long-distance recreational trail that could be used by snowmobiles and cross-country skiers in winter and by bicyclists, hikers, and others in the warmer months. In contrast, ASR wanted the state to fix up the rails to allow trains to run all the way from Utica to Lake Placid.
Last fall, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and state Department of Transportation finalized a compromise that calls for fixing up the tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake and removing the rails from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid. They also proposed to create snowmobile trails outside the corridor to enable riders to travel from Old Forge to Tupper.
One reason the railroad does not like the compromise is that Tupper Lake lacks the tourism draw of Lake Placid, a village on the edge of the High Peaks that gained fame as the host of two Winter Olympics. “If Tupper Lake is the destination, we’ll make it work, but it is not our first choice. If they were business people, they’d know that,” Branson said.
For years, debate has raged online and in newspapers over which use, rail or trail, would benefit the region more. At its February meeting, however, the APA discussed only the question of whether the departments’ proposal conformed to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, which governs management of the Forest Preserve.
That narrow focus led to some strange results. Dick Booth, chairman of the agency’s State Land Committee, voted against the measure even though he supports removing the rails. And Bill Thomas voted for it even though he would rather all the rails remain in place.
Afterward, Thomas said he thought the APA staff made a sound case that the proposal conformed to the State Land Master Plan. “I had to vote against my personal feelings,” he told the Explorer.
But Booth argued that the agency needed to amend the master plan before approving the proposal.
At issue is the corridor’s land-use classification. It is designated a Travel Corridor in the master plan. In comments to the APA, many rail supporters argued that if the tracks are removed, the corridor will no longer qualify as a Travel Corridor. In that case, the corridor presumably would need to be reclassified, putting it in Forest Preserve categories that would not allow the construction of the kind of trail—wide, graded, and surfaced—envisioned by DEC and DOT.
While supporting the goal of a rail trail, Booth said he agreed with the opponents’ interpretation of the master plan regarding the Travel Corridor. “It’s talking about a railroad; it’s not talking about something else,” he said.
The master plan defines the corridor, in part, as “the Remsen to Lake Placid railroad right-of-way.” In other places, the plan refers to the corridor as a “railroad” and “railroad line.”
APA attorney James Townsend conceded that the master plan’s language could be clearer, but he said the removal of rails will not change the corridor’s classification. With or without rails, he said, the right of way will remain intact and under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation. State officials say tracks could be laid down again if a demand develops for rail service.
Booth made a motion to delay voting on the departments’ proposal until the master plan could be amended, but no one seconded it.
After the meeting, Townsend said he is confident that the APA decision could withstand a legal challenge.
Another issue—one that the APA did not wrestle with—is whether pulling up tracks will destroy a piece of history. The corridor is on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Two nonprofit groups, Historic Saranac Lake and Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), contend that DEC failed to comply with historic-preservation regulations.
“I am not in a position to say if rail supporters will sue over this decision, but I do think there is the basis for a lawsuit on many grounds, not just on the historic-preservation issue,” said Steven Engelhart, the executive director of AARCH. Historic Saranac Lake Executive Director Amy Catania declined to comment.
DEC officials say they consulted with the State Historic Preservation Office on the proposal. The department intends to fix up railroad buildings and install educational signs along the corridor. “The historical significance of the railroad will be communicated to trail users,” DEC Regional Director Bob Stegemann, who sits on the APA board, said after the February meeting.
Stegemann said the department will move quickly to remove the rails once the next tourist-train season ends. “We’re going to act,” he said. “It’s not going to be languishing.”
Of course, that assumes the project won’t be tied up in the courts.
ARTA President Joe Mercurio said he was disheartened by the willingness of some of the rail supporters to drag out the fight. “I think they’re poor losers, and at a time when we should be coming together, they’re trying to ruin it for everyone,” he said.
Under the state plan, Mercurio noted, more track will be restored than removed, creating one of the longest train excursions in the nation. He said ARTA wants the state to take a hard look at the railroad’s business plan before repairing the tracks, but if the tracks are fixed up, he can live with that. “This is a compromise that I’m comfortable with,” he said. “Let’s get together and make it work.”
The state rejected proposals to build a trail alongside the rails (or a trail that weaved in and out of the corridor) as infeasible due to cost, environmental issues, and legal obstacles. The town of North Elba, which includes Lake Placid, sought for years to build a trail in the corridor but abandoned the plan in the face of the expense and wetland regulations.
North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi, who supported the APA’s decision, said he believes the rail trail will be heavily used by local residents and tourists alike. “I can’t wait to ride my bike to Saranac Lake and back without having to worry about getting hit by a car,” he said.