Federal authorities have halted consideration of whether the 30-mile rail line from North Creek to the former Tahawus mine in the central Adirondacks should be declared abandoned, ordering the current owner and a potential buyer to file a status report by Jan. 22, 2019.
The Surface Transportation Board, at the request of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, this week indefinitely stayed the deadline for public comments on DEC’s Sept. 10 request for an abandonment finding for the idled tracks. The test is an absence of “public convenience and necessity.”
Since then, Denver-based railroad operators and developers have shown interest in buying the line and conducting freight service, while the current owner has removed its trains and nearly all equipment.
OmniTRAX, which operates freight lines in other parts of the U.S., has an agreement with Iowa Pacific “for exclusive negotiation for a period of time to see if the two parties can reach an understanding about purchasing it,” according to company Vice President David Argenbright.
There’s no purchase imminent, but discussions are ongoing, a spokesman said recently.
On Oct. 16, the state cited the ongoing talks and a letter from OmniTRAX, saying it would enter a binding agreement with the DEC not to store rail cars on the line long-term in exchange for the department dropping its abandonment application.
Calls by the Adirondack Explorer to the attorney and president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, Chicago-based parent company of Saratoga and North Creek Railway, have not been returned.
Matt Simpson, Horicon supervisor and Warren County Public Works Committee chairman, said OmniTRAX also has expressed interest in acquiring the 40-mile rail line from North Creek south to Saratoga that the county owns. The municipality has been drafting a bid request for the lease or sale of its line, he said.
The DEC abandonment filing noted that the state has added nearly 70,000 acres of wildlands since 2012 that either lie along or would be accessible from the line, which “could represent an unparalleled opportunity to provide public access to some of the Adirondack Park’s most beautiful wild spaces.”
According to the DEC filing, suggested storage of up to 2,000 unused tankers and other cars on the Tahawus line by current owner Iowa Pacific, which would go into part of New York’s Forest Preserve, “requires” a federal abandonment finding. Dozens of cars were stored there last winter then removed in the spring after state authorities objected. About half the track runs through state-owned backcountry to the privately owned mine, New York’s filing said.
Meanwhile, some conservationists have proposed turning that corridor into a rail trail for recreational use.
New York’s abandonment application didn’t specifically call for that. However, it references “low-impact recreational use — principally hiking, camping, canoeing, horseback riding and bicycling” in similarly classified areas of the Forest Preserve and says the state and municipalities “should be free to plan for future uses of the line” that are complementary.
The Tahawus mine began producing titanium during World War II but ceased operations in 1989. The property was bought earlier this year by Mitchell Stone Products in Tupper Lake, which sells crushed stone from the mine tailings for construction, trucking it to local municipalities and other buyers in the region.
An analysis filed by Mitchell with the state earlier this year said rail shipping was too expensive currently to use it to reach more lucrative markets in New York City and Long Island. However, owner Paul Mitchell said that could change in the future for the recycled material at Tahawus.
Saratoga and North Creek Railway acquired the line in 2011 and proposed freight service for Tahawus and the Barton mine in North River and also began a tourist train from Saratoga Springs to North Creek. The tourist train shut down this year.
Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific, told Warren County officials that he needed the income from storing cars on the line until the freight business took hold.
New York officials noted that the rail line also was facing a $1.3 million federal tax lien as well as $100,000 of property taxes owed to Warren and Essex counties.
Scott Thompson says
The line was adopted for the public good, if only stone by one owner is to be hauled, go for the public trail. Quite a few well spending Snowmobilers used to use that as a trail and with out rails, would again. If a company will buy, maintain and operate a public service on the line then maybe.
Curt Austin says
It was announced in 1982 that the Tahawus mine would cease operations. It had been the sole user of the entire 90-mile corridor for many years. The last train of this era of legitimate rail transportation left Tahawus in 1989.
Nearly 30 years later, there has been no significant “public convenience and necessity”. Quite the opposite: the public has been threatened with prosecution for merely walking on the corridor.
Such a shame – it could have been converted to trail 30 years ago. Shall we give rail supporters another 30 years of “success is just around the corner”?
Tony Goodwin says
Scott and Curt, you are probably right that this line will never serve any “public convenience and necessity”. However, I’m willing to let Omnitrax explore the possibility of again using this line. In the end, Omnitrax will very likely conclude that the study done for Mitchell is correct and that it is much too expensive to ship the stone to more distant markets in quantities that warrant a train. If somehow, just maybe, this line could facilitate the clean-up of that abandoned mine, that would be a great service in the name of “public convenience and necessity”. There should absolutely be a time limit of no more than a year for Omnitrax to decide whether to buy. After that, a trail is clearly the best use of the line, although it would still be “rail banked” in case it was ever needed again for rail service.
Larry Roth says
It would be nice if we could start treating rail corridors as irreplaceable transportation infrastructure instead of disposable nuisances in the way of people who won’t look past their own immediate self interest.
The same old tired arguments about economic viability ignore that it’s not all about just money. In the 21st century, we need to recognize larger issues. We need to rethink our transportation priorities or admit we’re not serious about doing anything about a planet we’re warming out of control. Investing in rail the way we’ve invested in highways for decades would be a good place to start.
What good does it do to ‘restore’ wilderness by removing a rail line if we continue to massively subsidize the highways that are pumping greenhouse gases into the air, the gases that are cooking that wilderness?
What good does it do to build more trails in a area full of trails if they can only be reached by driving to them? What good does it do to always make it an either/or choice when what we really need are more choices?
What good does it do the towns and the businesses in the region if the only way to move goods, materials, and people is along highways where they have to compete with every other town that uses highways for access? What could they do with a fully restored rail line given whatever it needs to support all kinds of services?
This isn’t about trying to return to a past that has come and gone. This is about trying to build a future we can live in. The car and the highway have taken us as far as they can go – maybe too far. We’re running out of time to do better.
Tony Goodwin says
Would you please recognize that I posted a very nuanced comment that supported NOT abandoning this rail line until another potential operator had a chance to assess its viability. If that second operator also declines to invest in that line, then definitely move on to the “rail banking” option in case it is ever again needed.
Your response just repeated your standard comments about preserving rail service – whether or not they make any sense environmentally in every case.
Larry Roth says
I would suggest that you are the one misinterpreting and mischaracterizing my comments. You are the one failing to make any sense environmentally – because you continue to ignore climate change in your decades-long efforts to see rail lines removed from the Adirondacks.
This might have been defensible back in the 1980’s, but even then there was growing awareness that the climate was changing, and that we could not continue filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases without serious consequences. Those consequences are here, now.
The weather pattern now dumping rain and snow on the Adirondacks as I write this is the remains of Hurricane Willa. It began off the Pacific Coast of Mexico and rapidly grew into a Category 5 storm before making landfall. It has left flooding and destruction in its wake as it has crossed North America on its way out to the Atlantic. This is the new normal. It’s not going to get better – not if we keep doing what we’ve been doing.
It is you who continues to make the same old arguments oblivious to the world in which we now live. Your reflex call for rail banking will do nothing to address the crisis we now face. It will do nothing to help the communities of the Adirondacks adapt to the changes that are coming. It will do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s not just about the environment either – preserving and restoring rail service is going to be of increasing economic importance in the years ahead – because our economy will have to be reshaped to reflect those environmental needs.
The whole point of rail banking is to preserve rail corridors against future need. Well, the future is here and now. The tracks are still in place – removing them now would be unconscionable in light of what we are now faced with.
This is no longer just about whether or not a company can make money running a rail line; this is about how we are going to use transportation to address the unfortunate situation we have created for ourselves. This is about increasing resiliency, our ability to cope with natural disaster. This is bigger than one little corner of the Adirondacks – it’s global – but we have to start where we are.
Mr. Goodwin, you can either recognize that things have changed, or you can continue your myopic anti-rail crusade. Your choice.