Group calls for end to Lake Placid’s tourist train, arguing the region would benefit more from a recreational path.
By Chris Morris
Jim McCulley and Tony Goodwin butted heads for years over the legal status of the Old Mountain Road in Keene and North Elba. Goodwin helps maintain the woods road as a cross-country ski trail. McCulley contends that it is still a town road, and to prove his point, he drove his snowmobile and pickup truck on it.
McCulley was ticketed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and in the ensuing court battle, Goodwin testified about the trail’s history. McCulley eventually won the case.
Now the two have teamed up in opposition to a tourist train that runs between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. They want to see the tracks removed and the rail bed converted to a multi-use recreational trail.
“We’re not from the same camp—everyone knows that,” McCulley said. “But the reality is: a good idea is a good idea.”
This summer, McCulley and Goodwin helped form the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (Dick Beamish, chairman of the Adirondack Explorer, is also one of the founders). ARTA argues that a recreational trail would boost the regional economy, attracting snowmobilers and cross-country skiers in winter and bicyclists, joggers, and hikers the rest of the year.
But the group faces an uphill battle. The state Department of Transportation has no interest in tearing up the tracks. What’s more, the town of North Elba has obtained more than $3 million in grants to construct an eight-mile recreational trail alongside the tracks. Supporters say the side-by-side trail eventually could extend all the way to Tupper Lake—in all, some thirty-four miles.
The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) has already issued a permit for the side-by-side trail, although one agency commissioner—Art Lussi of Lake Placid—now regrets his vote in favor of the project, on environmental and economic grounds. “I have yet to hear from a fellow business owner that the train has boosted business,” Lussi wrote in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
Yet even some of the railroad’s biggest critics say it’s wiser, given the circumstances, to move forward with the side-by-side trail.
“If it were up to me, I’d go with the bike corridor instead of the tracks,” said Roby Politi, the supervisor of North Elba, which includes Lake Placid. “But it doesn’t look like we’re making progress on that. We want to connect these communities, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, with a recreational trail, and this is the best option we have right now.”
But Lee Keet, one of ARTA’s founders, argues that spending $3 million on a side-by-side trail is a waste of taxpayer money. Furthermore, he says extending such a trail all the way to Tupper Lake would be impractical and expensive.
Shortly after ARTA’s creation, Keet and McCulley strolled along the tracks near Lake Colby on the outskirts of Saranac Lake and made their case that the tourist train has failed from an economic standpoint and that it’s time to try something new.
“The added benefit to the communities, the tying of the communities together, the cost of the installation, the cost of the maintenance, the numbers of visitors it will attract to the region—any other measure you want—the the recreational trail wins,” Keet asserted. “There’s no argument that can be made where the railroad wins, and I’ll state that categorically. If somebody can dispute it, I’m all ready to debate them.”
McCulley, who is president of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club, stopped about halfway out the causeway and pointed to a spot where the rail bed seems in danger of slipping into Lake Colby.
“At one time, it might have been quite a railroad causeway, but at this point it’s becoming an eroded danger to the entire area by allowing a train to cross it,” he says. “I know when I groom this during the wintertime, this is the scariest part of grooming that you’ve ever seen. … When we take the eight-foot-wide groomer across it, it feels like you’re falling into the lake pretty much the entire way.”
Keet said the narrow causeway illustrates the impracticality of building a side-by-side trail all the way to Tupper Lake.
“In order to have a trail and a rail you need no less than thirty feet of width,” he said. “So imagine what would have to happen if you were to add twenty feet to this. The amount of fill you’d have to put into Lake Colby, Little Colby, or both would be enormous—the cost would be enormous. And the idea that the APA would ever let you just pour that amount of fill into a lake, in the twenty-first century, is kind of nonsense.”
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad runs trains out of Old Forge as well as Lake Placid and maintains some seventy miles of tracks in between. The railroad uses the tracks in between only twice a year—when it takes its Lake Placid train in and out of winter storage in Utica.
In recent years, Tupper Lake residents have been campaigning to get the Lake Placid train to extend its run to their village. The village formed a group called Next Stop! Tupper Lake and raised $400,000 to rebuild the local train station, according to David Tomberlin, who is involved in Next Stop! and the vice president of the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce.
“Our many supporters are passionate about restoring rail service to Tupper Lake,” Tomberlin said.
“Many families here have a historical connection to the line.”
But Keet and others contend that Tupper Lake would see more tourist traffic from cyclists and snowmobilers if the tracks are removed than it ever would from the train.
Keet acknowledges that the Old Forge train may be profitable, but he said the Lake Placid train isn’t. Like many locals, he and McCulley note that the train often appears nearly empty as it chugs through Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. After eleven years of operation, Adirondack Scenic Railroad says its Lake Placid ridership reached a high of fourteen thousand passengers in 2010, although Keet described those figures as “highly suspect.”
On a warm day in September, Rusty Russum, conductor of the Lake Placid train, took the time to stroll through the largely empty rail cars, chatting with tourists from all walks of life. He smiled at a young couple, snuggling against each other and paying no attention to the woods outside the window. Next to them sat a middle-aged couple from South Carolina, bookending two giggling daughters. Not far from them was a woman with binoculars and a digital camera.
Obviously, these visitors were enjoying the ride. However, most of the train’s seats were vacant. Russum attributed the scarcity of riders to the slow time between Labor Day weekend and fall foliage season. “June, July, holiday weekends—this train is packed,” he asserted.
For Russum, the train is as much a part of Adirondack culture and history as the peaks that loom in the distance. When he was growing up, he spent time at his parents’ camp in Otter Lake, west of Old Forge, and while attending church there, he would look past the preacher and count the freight cars as they rolled past.
“I fell in love with this railroad back then, when I was just a child,” he said. “Rode it a lot as a young man, and when the opportunity came to actually work on the railroad, I jumped at it. Just because it’s here, and I love it.”
Roby Politi understands the fondness for the train and its history, but he sees no economic benefit for Lake Placid or state taxpayers. DOT, which owns the rail corridor, reimburses the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to the tune of about $158,000 per year for maintenance of the tracks. “It’s a nice ride,” Politi said. “I have strong doubts, based upon the investment from the state, that there’s a positive return.”
ARTA believes a recreational trail would generate a greater economic benefit for the region. During a meeting in August hosted by ARTA, nearly two hundred people packed the conference room at Lake Placid’s Crowne Plaza Resort (owned by Lussi’s family) to hear a presentation on the potential economic benefits of a recreational trail.
Keynote speaker Carl Knoch of the National Rails-to-Trails Conservancy said other rail-to-trail projects have proven to be big draws for tourists. “If you build it, they will come—and they will spend money,” Knoch told the crowd.
Knoch said a sixty-mile path in Pennsylvania known as the Pine Creek Rail Trail attracts 138,000 users a year and generates more than $3.5 million in revenue annually.
“In talking to the folks who own businesses along the Pine Creek Rail Trail, they basically say the conversion of that railroad into a multi-season rail trail was the salvation of their valley,” he said.
Boosters contend that mountain bikers could use the trail as soon as the tracks were removed. If the surface were packed, it also could be used by hybrid and road bikes. Removing the tracks also would allow snowmobilers to use the corridor when snow is low, thus extending the snowmobile season. And if the tracks were taken out between Old Forge and Lake Placid, mountain bikers could enjoy multiday trips through the wilderness—providing an outdoors experience unique in the East.
But the momentum and money appear to be on the side of building a recreational path next to the tracks. Kate Fish, executive director of the Adirondack North Country Association, said reallocating the grant money to rip up the tracks is politically infeasible.
Keet, however, said ARTA is demonstrating that the public wants the tracks replaced with a long-distance recreational trail. The group has gained more than six hundred members in less than a month.
“If we have the support—and I believe we do—we can get our political leaders to move, and move quickly,” Keet said. ■