Public remains split over the best use of 80-mile corridor running through wild lands.
By Phil Brown
After four public meetings on the future of the eighty-mile rail corridor between Big Moose and Lake Placid, the public seems as divided as ever, and the state now must make a decision sure to leave many people unhappy.
The Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation plan to review the public comments and make a recommendation for the best use of the state-owned corridor. After the public has had a chance to weigh in on that recommendation, the departments will make a final decision, probably later this year.
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which operates tourist trains out of Utica, Old Forge, and Lake Placid, wants the state to retain and refurbish the entire eighty-mile stretch of tracks. ASR says it could then expand its services and spur economic growth in communities near the corridor. Among other things, the railroad says it would transport passengers from Utica, where it’s based, to Lake Placid and points in between.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates argues that the train has failed to live up to its economic promise, at least at the northern end of the line. ARTA says the region would see greater economic benefit if the state removed the tracks north of Big Moose and built a trail that could be used by snowmobilers in winter and bicyclists in other seasons.
The state has suggested a compromise: replace the thirty-four miles of tracks between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid with a trail and refurbish the forty-four miles of tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake. Under this proposal, ASR would be forced to discontinue the Lake Placid train, but it could continue to operate its other trains and would have an opportunity to expand service north to Tupper Lake.
Neither side is satisfied with this proposal. Rail supporters say it makes more sense to run trains all the way to Lake Placid, which is a bigger tourist draw than Tupper Lake. Trail supporters contend that refurbishing the line south of Tupper Lake would be wasting money on a train that few would ride. What’s more, snowmobilers still would not be able to ride the corridor south of Tupper Lake whenever the snowpack failed to cover the rails.
The debate over the rail line has raged for several years. In 2013, the state held a series of meetings to gather opinions on whether to revisit the corridor’s management plan, which was written in 1996. Partly based on the public input, the state came up with its proposal to amend the plan. At the more recent meetings, held in late October and early November, the public was asked to comment on this proposal.
Over the years, some have argued for keeping the tracks and building a trail alongside them. At this fall’s meetings, state officials made it clear that this is not feasible because the corridor is too narrow in places to accommodate a trail, such as where it crosses a wetland or a water body.
Nevertheless, the Trails with Rails Action Committee (TRAC), which is allied with the railroad, asserts that it has a “win-win solution.” It proposes building a trail beside the tracks where possible and, where that’s not possible, building trails that leave and re-enter the corridor.
State officials say they will consider all ideas, including TRAC’s, but they raised several questions about the rails-with-trails concept.
First and foremost, TRAC is proposing a different kind of trail from what the state has in mind. Rob Davies, head of DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, said the state is considering a “universally accessible trail”—one that could be used by road bikes (perhaps with the exception of racing bikes with thin tires), wheelchairs, and baby strollers. Because it would be in the rail corridor, the trail would be wide, flat, and smooth. It’s possible that all or part of the trail would be paved with asphalt, but ARTA considers packed crushed stone and/or stone dust a more likely candidate for the surface.
Trails like this cannot be built in the adjacent Forest Preserve under existing state-land regulations. Hence, the spur trails envisioned by TRAC would be similar to hiking trails. That is, they could be used by mountain bikes but not road bikes.
Jack Drury, who researched the trails for TRAC, said the network would be designed for easy riding to appeal to families and casual bikers. “If it’s done right, it will be family friendly, but family friendly on a mountain bike, not a road bike,” he told the Explorer.
Drury contends that a long-distance mountain-bike route is especially appropriate for the Adirondack Park, whose appeal lies in its wildness. “That’s something we can market and sell as unique to us rather than the traditional rail trail,” he said.
At the same time, Drury said, road bikers would be able to ride parts of the corridor.
But Tony Goodwin, a member of ARTA’s board, said the Adirondack Park already has lots of trails for mountain biking. “What we’re looking for is something that’s totally different from all other Adirondack trails,” he told the Explorer.
Critics also point out that TRAC’s proposal assumes that a trail would be constructed next to the tracks in the corridor between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. The town of North Elba planned for years to build such a trail, but it gave up the project as too costly, partly due to wetland regulations. Drury notes that the Adirondack Park Agency approved the project, and he insists it can still be done.
Between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, TRAC says, trails would need to leave the corridor in several locations. For example, there would be lengthy detours around Lake Clear and Hoel Pond. Nearly twelve miles of trail could be built—in discontinuous sections—within the corridor, according to TRAC. That’s about half the total mileage between the two villages.
It’s unknown how much the TRAC proposal would cost to implement, but ARTA contends it would be more expensive than removing the tracks and building a trail in their footprint. In some places, TRAC’s plans call for building trails on cantilevers and/or berms beside the tracks, which would be more costly than simply resurfacing the rail bed.
At the meetings, DOT did offer cost estimates both for refurbishing the rails and for replacing the rails with a multi-use trail.
Ray Hessinger, director of DOT’s Freight and Passenger Rail Bureau, said it would cost $11 million to repair the tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake and $6.7 million to repair the rails between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. Thus, if the entire line were rehabilitated, the cost would be $17.7 million, which is similar to Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s own estimate.
Hessinger said building a trail between Big Moose and Tupper Lake would cost $11.4 million and building a trail between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid would cost $9.8 million, for a total of $21.2 million.
The estimate for implementing the state’s proposal—refurbishing forty-four miles of tracks and building thirty-four miles of trail—is $20.8 million. Hessinger said the maintenance cost is about the same whether the corridor is used for trains or a trail: $1,500 a mile annually. The $20.8 million does not include the expense of creating snowmobile trails between Old Forge and Tupper Lake, something the state has promised to consider.
DOT’s estimate for repairing the entire line assumes it would be upgraded to class II rail standards, which under federal regulations allow passenger trains to travel up to thirty miles an hour. Critics say few people would want to ride a train from Utica to Lake Placid (140 miles) at that speed. Upgrading the tracks to class III standards, which would allow trains to travel up to sixty miles an hour, would cost $44 million, according to a DOT estimate a few years ago.
If the tracks are upgraded only to class II, Goodwin estimates that the trip from Utica to Lake Placid will take about six and a half hours—too long, he asserts, to interest most people. “It would be at least twice the time it takes to drive,” he said.
But Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which operates the railroad, asserts that speed is not the objective. “This is supposed to be a scenic adventure. Nobody is going to be speeding through the woods,” he said in an interview last fall.
The state’s $21.2 million estimate for building a trail all the way from Big Moose to Lake Placid is far above ARTA’s estimates. ARTA contends that all or most of the trail could be paid for by selling the rails and other steel fixtures in the corridor. The Iron Horse Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization that specializes in building rail trails, says it could do the work at no cost to the state, using revenue from salvaging steel. “These things can pay for themselves. It’s not pie in the sky; the numbers don’t lie,” Iron Horse President Joe Hattrup told the Explorer.
Rail supporters say Hattrup is overestimating the salvage revenue and underestimating the cost of disposing of tens of thousands of wooden railroad ties. They also question whether he has taken into account a law that requires contractors hired by the state to pay “prevailing wages.”
Hessinger said he could not explain the vast difference in cost estimates—$21.2 million versus nothing—because he doesn’t know what assumptions Hattrup made in his calculations. However, he said DOT stands behind its estimates (though they may be refined before the state unveils its final proposal). “I am confident of the numbers we put forward,” he said.
Jim McCulley, president of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club, accused DOT of skewing the figures in favor of the train. “DOT is obviously attempting to keep the railroad for unknown reasons,” said McCulley, who is on ARTA’s board.
Partisans on both sides agree that, although costs should be taken into account, the more important question is what is most beneficial for the economy and future of the Adirondack Park.
“The best-use factors should outweigh all the cost figures being bandied about, especially when each party’s cost estimates are disputed by the other,” said Wayne Tucker, a member of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad board.
As with the cost estimates, the two sides differ widely on the number of visitors that the train or trail would attract and on the consequent economic benefit to communities. In a study commissioned by ARTA, the Rails to Trails Conservancy projected that the rail trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake could attract 244,000 visitors a year—not including winter users. For the nine non-winter months, that works out to an average of nine hundred visitors a day.
“We strongly disagree with those inflated projections because they were based on heavier population centers than the Utica area and points northward,” Tucker said.
The railroad draws about seventy-four thousand riders a year, according to Tucker, but only sixteen thousand ride the Lake Placid-to-Saranac Lake train. A 2012 report by Stone Consulting, commissioned by ASR, projected that the railroad would draw seven thousand additional passengers a year if the tracks were fixed up to allow people to ride from Utica to Lake Placid.
Goodwin said the additional ridership would not justify the expense of refurbishing the tracks. “The seven thousand additional riders in return for the $16.7 million investment of taxpayer dollars is much less than the projected—at the low end—fifty thousand trail users who come at no cost to the state,” he said.
Tucker said ASR doesn’t agree with Stone Consulting’s figures. “We have contended from the beginning that they were way too conservative,” he said. “This was borne out recently when we garnered over five thousand riders for a new section of track that ran from Thendara to Big Moose for the 2013 season. That performance alone would justify fixing up the whole line.”
Given the uncertainty of the projections, Tucker added, “why would anybody espouse tearing up the existing infrastructure just to find out whose visitor numbers were more correct?”
ARTA took issue with examples offered by Hessinger of a tourist train and rail trail that he said are similar to those under discussion in the Adirondacks: the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a tourist train near Cleveland, Ohio, and the Genesee Valley Greenway, a recreational trail in western New York. At the public meetings, he said the train draws about two hundred thousand passengers a year, while the trail attracts seventy thousand users in the Rochester area.
Many observers thought Hessinger was suggesting that Adirondack Scenic Railroad would draw two hundred thousand riders if the entire line were rehabilitated, whereas the rail trail would draw only seventy thousand users if all the tracks were removed. However, Hessinger told the Explorer that was not his intent. He said DOT has not made any projections of the number of people that would use the train or the trail. He expects the department will conduct such an analysis before the final proposal is issued.
Many towns and businesses in the northern part of the corridor agree with ARTA that a rail trail will do more for the local economy than a train.
Hessinger and DEC’s Rob Davies talked about a number of other issues at the meetings, including the following:
■ Ownership of the corridor. The rail corridor was abandoned by Penn Central in 1972. The state acquired it by eminent domain in 1975 and owns it outright. If the state removes the tracks, Davies said, the ownership of the corridor will not (as some have suggested) revert to private landowners.
■ Land-use classification. The corridor is classified as a Travel Corridor under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. If the tracks are removed, some have wondered if the corridor would need to be reclassified Wild Forest or Wilderness, which would restrict the type of trail that could be built and its uses. Davies said he believes the classification of the corridor would not change.
■ Bringing back rails. Rail proponents say if the tracks are removed, they will be gone forever. State officials, however, say the tracks could be restored, though at considerable expense.
In all, about five hundred people attended the four meetings, held in Utica, Old Forge, Tupper Lake, and Lake Placid. The attendees were not allowed to speak publicly. Rather, after presentations by Hessinger and DEC’s Davies, people had a chance to visit “listening stations,” where state officials wrote down their opinions. The departments also received written comments via email and postal mail.
DEC and DOT will review the public input, do more research, and come out with a final proposal sometime in late spring or early summer. The agencies then will hold public hearings before deciding whether to implement or modify that proposal.
Editor’s Note: Dick Beamish, the founder of the Adirondack Explorer, is active in Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. He had no hand in the writing of this article.