By TIM ROWLAND
The state hopes to begin construction next spring on a $44.8 million project that will create a unique, 34-mile rail trail through the heart of the Adirondacks, coupled with one of the longest scenic railroads in the Eastern United States, New York Department of Environmental Conservation planners said this week.
The public will have a chance to comment on the plan at three public meetings: 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 3 at Tupper Lake Middle-High School; 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 4 at the Lake Placid Conference Center; and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 5 at the View Arts Center in Old Forge. Comments can also be mailed to John Schmid at NYSDEC, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY, 12233-4254, or emailed to [email protected]. The full plan may be viewed at https://on.ny.gov/379edCK. The public comment period will end Dec. 20.
State officials hope this travel-corridor management plan — which is similar to past plans, but tidies up some objections raised in the courts — is the final word in a long and contentious battle over a state-owned rail line running 119 miles from Lake Placid south and west to Remsen. There, state ownership ends, but the line continues on to Utica, 20 miles to the south.
Rail buffs wanted the entire line preserved for trains, while recreational advocates said the corridor was grossly underused, and as a rail trail had potential to be a major tourist draw.
The state’s management plan addresses the dispute by cleaving the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor into two parts: Track will be torn out of a 34-mile segment between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and converted into the Adirondack Rail Trail for bicyclists, runners, skiers and snowmobilers. South of Tupper Lake, the railroad will be fixed up for tourist trains, most notably the 45 miles between Big Moose and Tupper Lake, where for years the track has been too dilapidated to use.
Planners said they have spent considerable time in the trenches with stakeholders, hammering out a compromise. In a statement released by the DEC, Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society and a past opponent of state plans for the corridor, said the new management plan proposed by the state is acceptable.
“This extraordinary investment assures the ability to extend accessible passenger rail excursion and scenic services, and their related economic development benefits, to Tupper Lake and the northern region of the Adirondacks,” he said.
Schmid, a natural resources planner for the DEC, said past proposals for side-by-side rail trail and train track were unworkable, in large part because the track pierces wetlands that would not accommodate an adjoining trail.
According to the management plan, snowmobiling will be allowed along the length of the railroad through the winter months, and may in time lead to connections to towns, in hopes of improving their economies, and to other snowmobile trail networks in points west.
Lost for good will be the tourist trains that as recently as three years ago had run west out of Lake Placid, and recreational pedal cars that used the track. In exchange, the state and bicycle advocates believe they will be adding a rail trail that has the potential to achieve Holy Grail status as it glides through Adirondack forests, waters and mountains. The plan includes resurfacing the rail bed as well as building multiple trailheads and rest areas.
The management plan also anticipates that the rail line between Tupper Lake and Big Moose will lead to some interesting opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts as well. Robert Davies, DEC director of the Division of Lands and Forests, said the line bisects the remote Five Ponds Wilderness. “It’s some beautiful wild country, through wetlands, mountains and forests,” he said.
But it is difficult territory to access. The management plan indicates there is the potential for flag stops along the route where backpackers could be picked up or dropped off. In the winter, the line itself will be available for long, “expedition” adventures.
The project also anticipates significant improvements at Tupper Lake, where the two segments will meet, including parking, train turnarounds and platforms. The plan sees a day when a shuttle service back to Lake Placid might be offered to cyclists.
The rail line, build nearly 130 years ago, is considered historic, and tearing up a portion of the track will diminish its historical value. But Schmid said this is countered by the many people who will visit the Adirondack Rail Trail and learn about the history, whereby otherwise they would not. The plan includes historical interpretation and will reuse as much of the old material as possible.
The estimated costs are $18.9 million for rail rehab, $13.2 million for the Adirondack Rail Trail $12.7 million for Tupper Lake improvements.
The state acquired the line in 1974 from Penn Central, and issued its first management plan in 1996, which called for rail traffic and potentially a parallel bike path. Since then, a number of factions have weighed in on the asset, and not always happily. The issue eventually wound up in court, as cyclists, rail buffs, historians and towns wrestled for the upper hand.
In a moment of levity at Thursday’s meeting of the Adirondack Park Agency, Schmid juxtaposed two photos of himself, ostensibly representing his time on the project — the first of a fresh-faced young lad with a full head of hair, the second of a bald and grizzled vet of the planning wars.
Now, Schmid said he believes there will be elements of the project for all sides to enjoy.