Officials propose removing the tracks between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid to create a bike path.
By Phil Brown
For several years, people have been arguing over the future of a little-used rail corridor running through the heart of Adirondack wilderness. In June, the state offered a compromise, but partisans on both sides say they won’t give up the fight.
Under the state’s proposal, the tracks between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid (thirty-four miles) would be replaced with a multi-use trail, but the tracks south of Tupper Lake (fifty-six miles) would remain intact.
“This is just a proposal. We’re still going to solicit input,” Joe Martens, the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), told the Adirondack Explorer.
He added that the remoteness of the corridor south of Tupper Lake argued against converting that section to a recreational trail. “You’re a long way from help if you have any problems,” Martens said.
DEC and the state Department of Transportation (DOT) plan to hold meetings this fall to gather ideas from the public. Afterward they will issue the draft of a revised management plan for the state-owned corridor. Following public hearings on the draft plan, the departments will issue a final document, probably sometime next year. It could incorporate the proposal on the table or a different option.
That the state agreed to revisit the management plan at all is a partial victory for Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA), a volunteer organization that is urging the state to replace the tracks with a trail that could be used by cyclists and hikers in spring, summer, and fall and by snowmobiles in winter. (Dick Beamish, the founder of the Explorer, is on ARTA’s board.)
“It’s not a done deal that we’re going to get a trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, but if that were to happen, it’d be a big step forward,” said ARTA President Joe Mercurio, a Saranac Lake resident.
Mercurio said ARTA will continue to push for removing rather than refurbishing the aging tracks between Old Forge and Tupper Lake. “As a taxpayer, I feel it would be a terrible waste of money for something that hasn’t been in demand for forty years and probably will never have a demand,” he said.
ARTA says twelve thousand people and four hundred local businesses have signed petitions in support of the rail trail.
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which operates tourist trains out of Old Forge and Lake Placid, opposed reopening the plan. If the compromise is adopted, the railroad would be forced to shut down the Lake Placid train, but it could continue to operate the Old Forge train. By all accounts, the Old Forge train is much more successful than its Lake Placid counterpart.
ARTA is not opposed to keeping the Old Forge train. But it says converting the rest of the corridor to a recreational trail would provide a big boost to the region’s economy— a view shared by those local officials who want the tracks removed. The group cites a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy report which estimated that a rail trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake would attract 244,000 visitors a year (an average of 668 a day), who would spend $20 million. Rail supporters contend that ARTA is exaggerating the benefits of a trail.
The railroad complains that the state’s refusal to offer a long-term lease has hampered efforts to attract capital to fix up the deteriorating line and improve rail service—a shortcoming that DEC and DOT acknowledge. In a news release announcing the decision to reopen the management plan, the agencies promised to “evaluate options to provide the long-term assurance to the rail operator and its investors.”
Bill Branson, president the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which oversees the railroad, said he believes there is a market for a train that would take tourists through the deep woods between Old Forge and Tupper Lake and continue on to Lake Placid. It would give the elderly, the disabled, the unfit, and the simply curious a chance to see remote wilderness, he said.
Branson said the tracks would need to be refurbished only enough to allow trains to travel thirty to forty miles an hour. “This is supposed to be a scenic adventure,” he said. “Nobody is going to be speeding through the woods.”
The railroad supporters have called on the state to adopt a rails-with-trails option. The idea is that a recreational trail would be built alongside the tracks where possible. Where that’s not possible, users would be diverted to other trails, either pre-existing or newly cut.
“We can have both rails and trails, and this process [of revisiting the management plan] will allow us to explore that,” said Jack Drury, a Saranac Lake guide and member of the Trails with Rails Action Committee (TRAC).
Drury has outlined a rails-with-trails proposal for the corridor between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid (the only such proposal on the table). Under his plan, a trail would run beside the tracks from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake. West of Saranac Lake, the trail would leave the corridor in several places, taking long detours around Lake Colby, Lake Clear, Hoel Pond, and other water bodies.
The spur trails would be dirt and unsuitable for road bikes. Thus, Drury’s proposal is at odds with one of ARTA’s fundamental objectives: the creation of a longdistance trail for road bikers, providing them a chance to experience the Adirondacks away from traffic.
ARTA is proposing to surface the trail with stone dust, which it says is suitable for most road bikes.
Mercurio doubts that a trail network such as Drury envisions would get much use. “I don’t see it as a reasonable alternative,” he said. “Our proposal is the preferable one that is going to offer something beneficial to the community, not only economically, but recreationally.”
Commissioner Martens said he doesn’t think the rails-with- trails option is practical, given the environmental, legal, and fiscal challenges. “My staff—and DOT’s staff— looked at it very carefully, and it’s very complicated,” he said.
Most Adirondack towns and villages along the corridor have called on the state to remove the tracks or at least reopen the management plan. In contrast, no municipality has voted to keep the tracks in place without a review.
Even the town of Webb, which includes Old Forge, voted to reopen the management plan. Supervisor Ted Riehle, though a big supporter of Adirondack Scenic Railroad, has no objection to soliciting new ideas for the corridor. He said the review could be favorable to the railroad. “The train is a big economic boost to our area, and I see it as a potential boost to the rest of the Park,” Riehle said.
At the other end of the line, the Lake Placid Village Board voted in favor of removing the tracks after plans to build a side-by-side trail to Saranac Lake proved too costly. Mayor Craig Randall voted against the board’s resolution, but he has since been convinced by business owners that a trail would do more for the local economy. “My personal feeling is that a rail trail would be the more desirable outcome,” he said.
In Piercefield, just west of Tupper Lake, the town board voted to remove the tracks, but under the state’s proposal, the local tracks will stay in place. “I am thankful that it’s going to happen between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake. I am really disappointed my town is going to be left out,” said Supervisor Neil Pickering.
Pickering noted that Piercefield (population 350) has only two businesses—a leather-goods shop and a bar restaurant—and he had hoped that tourism from the trail would prompt someone to open a new business, perhaps a gas station or a B&B.
Another who has mixed feelings about the compromise is Jim McCulley, president of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club. Snowmobilers ride the corridor in winter, but only when there is plenty of snow to cover the tracks and trails—and often there is not. Removing the tracks at the northern end of the line will help, McCulley said, but much greater economic benefits will be seen if the tracks south of Tupper are taken out. That would provide an easy route to the northern Adirondacks from Old Forge and Tug Hill, two snowmobiling meccas. “This corridor connects the whole Adirondacks,” McCulley remarked.
McCulley said the extra snowmobile traffic would be a huge economic boost to towns along the corridor. Last winter, he said, automatic counters detected only six sleds a day going through Sabattis when snow levels were low. When snow covered the rails, the number shot up to four hundred to five hundred sleds a day, he said.
If the tracks stay in place between Old Forge and Tupper Lake, the state says it will look at building alternative snowmobile trails to link the two communities.
The debate over the rail corridor has divided the community of Tupper Lake. A nonprofit group called Next Stop Tupper Lake has lobbied for years to restore rail service between Tupper and Lake Placid. Other residents argue that the community would benefit more from a trail that could be used by bikers and snowmobilers. In the end, both the town and village boards voted in favor of revisiting the management plan.
Under the state’s proposal, Tupper Lake could end up as a terminus for both the railroad and a recreational trail. “Tupper Lake may get the best of both worlds,” Martens said.
But Dan McClelland, chairman of Next Stop Tupper Lake, said his organization still favors restoring rail service between Tupper and Placid. “My committee is pretty much dedicated to rail and trail,” said McClelland, publisher of the weekly Tupper Lake Free Press.
Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun was the only one on the village board to vote against reopening the management plan, but he understands the state’s decision to do so. “It was something that they had to do with all the voices weighing in from all over the Adirondacks,” said Maroun, who backs the rails-with-trails option.
Observers hope the state will settle a number of factual questions that have been debated at length in newspaper pages and in online forums, among them: How much would it cost to refurbish the tracks? How many visitors would a rail-trail attract and what would it do for the economy? Would the money from salvaging the tracks cover the expense of constructing a trail? If the tracks are removed, will the corridor become Forest Preserve or perhaps revert to previous owners?
Another question is whether the Adirondacks will need a train in the future to transport freight and/or passengers. Although there is no demand for rail transportation now, the argument is that the line might be needed again if the world runs short of oil.
“As gas prices continue to rise, this area is going to suffer,” said Stephen Erman, a TRAC spokesman and member of the board of the Adirondack North Country Association. “In order to be competitive we need to find a way to move people up here.”
Erman also said light rail could be used to shuttle people—visitors and residents alike—among Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid. He said that the demand for such rail service will grow if the Adirondack Club and Resort, a massive housing project planned for Tupper Lake, comes to fruition.
But the bottom line, he said, is that we don’t know what the future holds. “When the rail is gone, you don’t have a way to easily get it back,” Erman said. “In the absence of certainty, it makes sense to keep what we have and build on what we have.”
A debate over cost of repairs
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad says reconstructing the unused portion of the tracks in the stateowed Adirondack rail corridor would cost about $15 million. dirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) puts that figure at around $44 million.
Which figure is correct? They both are.
In 2008, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) published a report that contained a wish list of rail improvements all over the state. It included nine projects for the Adirondack rail corridor, totaling $45.7 million. Two of these projects—the construction of a repair shop in Utica and the purchase of two rail cars—have nothing to do with track upgrades. Thus, ARTA subtracted the cost of these projects, about $2 million, to arrive at its estimate of $44 million, give or take.
Of the remaining seven projects, the most expensive is track reconstruction, estimated at $15 million. This is what DOT thought it would cost to rehab the unused portion of the corridor to the Class II rail standard. This is the standard of tracks in Old Forge and Lake Placid, where Adirondack Scenic Railroad operates seasonal tourist trains.
The other six projects, totaling $28.7 million, are work that would be required if the corridor were upgraded further to Class III. This would include, for example, the installation of signals at highway crossings and safety improvements to accommodate faster trains.
ARTA includes the Class III upgrades in its estimate, but the Adirondack Scenic Railroad does not.
Tony Goodwin, one of ARTA’s board members, contends it would make little sense to upgrade the line just to Class II standards. In that case, a passenger train would be allowed to travel only thirty miles an hour at most. A Class III train, in contrast, can travel up to sixty miles an hour. Goodwin doubts that many people would want to ride the slower train from Utica to Lake Placid since the trip would take six hours–about twice as long as by car.
“If they can go only half the speed of a vehicle, it’s still just a tourist train,” Goodwin said.
But a tourist train seems to be all that Adirondack Scenic Railroad has in mind, at least for the near future.
“This is supposed to be a scenic adventure. Nobody is going to be speeding through the woods,” said Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which operates the railroad.
The railway society hired Stone Consulting to revisit the DOT estimate. Last year, the firm came up with a figure of $15.2 million to restore the tracks to Class II standards.
Beau Duffy, a DOT spokesman, cautioned that the cost figures in the 2008 report were rough estimates made without engineering analyses. As part of the forthcoming review, he said, the department will prepare a more detailed analysis of the cost of refurbishing the line.