Officials in Tri-Lakes region urge state to study the benefits of converting rail corridor to a recreational trail or to just go ahead and tear up the tracks.
By Brian Mann
The battle over use of a historic railroad corridor through the heart of the Adirondacks escalated this fall, with a growing number of local government leaders questioning the value of an excursion train that would operate from Old Forge to Lake Placid.
Regional development officials, meanwhile, affirmed their support for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, describing it as an important tourism attraction and suggesting that the entire line could be back in regular use within two years, carrying visitors from as far away as New York City.
As of press time, six towns and villages along the line—along with St. Lawrence County’s legislature—have passed resolutions raising doubts about that vision. Some have urged state officials to reopen a unit management plan, written in 1992, that governs use of the state-owned corridor. Others have simply urged the Department of Transportation to tear up the tracks. “To keep the snowmobilers, that’s a key thing for Tupper Lake,” said Supervisor Roger Amell after the town board voted in October to ask the state to revisit the plan.
Amell argued that the railroad tracks are limiting winter recreation, making it difficult for remote communities along the corridor to connect to the booming snowmobile industry in Inlet and Old Forge. “Unless you have plenty of snow, you can’t use the tracks,” he complained. His views contrast sharply with other locals in Tupper Lake, who say the tourism train would bring new visitors to the community.
But Amell isn’t alone in expressing skepticism about the project. In September and October, officials in Harrietstown and Saranac Lake also voted to urge a review of the state plan, while elected officials in Lake Placid, North Elba, Piercefield, and St. Lawrence County went further, passing resolutions “respectfully requesting” that tracks be removed immediately.
In an e-mail, DOT spokeswoman Jennifer Post said state officials are aware of the local resolutions that have been passed. “We encourage these communities to work together to form a consensus about the future of the corridor and to partner with the North Country Economic Development Council to put together a plan,” she wrote in response to an inquiry from the Explorer.
Doubts about the tourism train have simmered for years. In 2010, North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise that the effort was “a financial boondoggle.” In August 2011, a coalition of activists calling themselves the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates launched a campaign calling for the rail bed to be converted into a multi-use trail.
The group is an unlikely mix of environmentalists, snowmobile boosters, and opponents of government spending. “The train is a boondoggle,” agreed ARTA co-founder Jim McCulley, from Lake Placid, a longtime snowmobile activist who noted that as of December, more than ten thousand people had signed a petition calling for the tracks to be torn up.
“We need something that is going to be a private-sector-oriented project without endless taxpayer subsidies. Their entire business model is based on needing grants, getting grants. The trail is something that once it is up and running will take care of itself and draw hundreds of thousands of people to the region,” McCulley asserted.
Supporters of the tourism railroad reject those arguments and have dismissed ARTA as a fringe group. “I think it’s not unfair to say that ARTA is a negative organization. They want to do something that’s basically destructive,” said Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society, which runs the tourist train.
“I think [the debate] is a bit of a distraction,” agreed Kate Fish, head of the Adirondack North Country Association, an influential nonprofit development group headquartered in Saranac Lake. Fish suggested that ARTA had provided misleading information to elected officials, prompting the resolutions. “We looked really carefully at the numbers that ARTA presented in terms of the number of people [who would use a multi-purpose trail], and they are so over-inflated,” Fish said.
The state Department of Transportation’s twenty-year-old management plan calls for gradually restoring regular train service on the line. Even though the plan is supposed to be re-evaluated every five years, DOT has shown little interest in doing so. Train advocates predict that rising gas prices and concerns about the carbon pollution from cars will spark a renaissance in railroad usage. “The revival of rail as an engine of tourism is evident across Europe and now all over America,” argued Garry Douglas, head of the North Country Chamber of Commerce, a leading advocate for the rail line, in a statement issued in October.
But advocates for Adirondack Scenic Railroad have clearly been rattled by organized opposition to their project. In June of this year, Douglas sparked controversy when he wrote a private letter to train supporters in Tupper Lake urging them to “come out in force to drown out recreational trail supporters” at a public meeting. He later apologized, in an interview with the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, after his letter was made public.
Douglas also co-chairs the state-sponsored North Country Regional Economic Development Council, which wields broad influence in Albany, shaping state funding for projects. In September, even as local governments were raising questions about the train, the council submitted its latest list of priorities to Governor Andrew Cuomo. The document included a call for the state to “preserve and rehabilitate all surviving rail infrastructure” in the Park, including “the Adirondack Railroad from Remsen to Lake Placid.”
Train supporters had more good news in late October, when Branson announced a new agreement with Iowa Pacific Holdings, a rail operator based in Chicago. Iowa Pacific plans to develop Pullman sleeping-car excursions that would run between New York City and Lake Placid. In a news release, Branson argued that it was validation of the idea that train service is economically viable in the Park, noting that “Iowa Pacific fully assessed the potential of the Adirondack Railroad.”
Iowa Pacific President Ed Ellis echoed those arguments, promising that “a first-class overnight experience” would “bring a dramatic rail-service improvement to the Adirondacks.” ANCA’s Kate Fish praised the new effort, predicting that Pullman cars could begin rolling through the Park within two years. “Train ridership is skyrocketing,” she argued. “AMTRAK is skyrocketing. Rail transportation is a much cheaper way in terms of energy dollars than individual cars.”
Bill Branson was more cautious in his estimate of the timeline, but he said that an investment of state dollars might make it possible. “Two years is not out of the question, but we recognize like everybody else does that there are a lot of hurdles. This is not such a remote possibility,” he added, declining to say how much state funding the project would need.
ARTA’s leaders discounted the new proposal as another empty promise, noting that train buffs have been promising a renewal of train service since the late 1970s, when a different company revived the railroad in advance of the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. That project went bankrupt. The railroad was revived again in 1992, with train boosters promising that the route could be restored quickly at little cost to the public.
“This [Pullman car proposal] may be the silliest idea that’s come out in a long time. I just don’t see it as a viable option,” said ARTA’s McCulley, who noted that Iowa Pacific declined to say how much money it would invest to help restore the track.
Complicating the debate is the fact that advocates on both sides are passionate about their competing visions for a revitalized corridor. Train buffs are proud of the long history of railroading in the region and committed to the idea of bringing rail travel back. Trail supporters, meanwhile, are convinced that a multi-use trail would bring an influx of bikers, hikers, and snowmobilers to sections of the Park that currently see limited tourism.
“I can understand why [train enthusiasts] are so up in arms against what we’re trying to do,” acknowledged ARTA co-founder Tony Goodwin, whose opposition to maintaining the tracks dates back to the early 1990s. “The rail supporters have this dream of their own little railroad that they’re going to re-create. I’m the first one to admit that we’re taking away a dream that they’ve been pursuing for twenty years. But they’re a relatively small group that’s trying to get the state to throw even more taxpayer dollars at this project.”
Goodwin pointed to state documents suggesting that New York has already invested roughly $30 million in the line since 1992, with ongoing maintenance costs of roughly $300,000 each year. In 2009, the DOT estimated that refurbishing badly dilapidated sections of the track from Old Forge to Lake Placid would cost another $43 million. Branson insisted that number is wildly inflated, but he declined to say how much he thought the project would cost, saying that a business plan is still in development.
It’s a sign of just how fractious the debate has become that no one can agree on basic facts, including how much refurbishing the railroad might cost, what the price tag for a multi-purpose trail would be, or how many visitors the two options might attract to the region. Trail supporters have accused railroad operators of inflating their ridership estimates in recent years, a claim the railroad denies.
Some groups and individuals have suggested that some kind of middle ground might be possible, with the railroad operating parallel to a new multi-use trail. But that option presents technical and financial challenges. Significant stretches of the rail bed cross wetlands or open water, much of it in remote areas classified as Wilderness, with strict regulations that prohibit new structures beyond the DOT right-of-way. Other sections border private property. “The problem is that given the physical terrain, there is no room for compromise,” Goodwin concluded.
With battle lines drawn, it’s unclear where this debate might go next. Rail supporters hope that the conversation—and the controversy—will fade away, leaving them to develop the corridor as new funding becomes available. “To us it makes no sense to remove existing infrastructure, so ripping up the tracks seems shortsighted,” said ANCA’s Fish, who predicted that local officials will eventually rally behind the train. If the management plan is reopened “there’s a risk of years and years of legal debates and discussion, in which case everything stops,” Fish warned.
But ARTA backers say they’re heartened by recent meetings with senior Department of Environmental Conservation officials, and by an invitation to make their case to members of Governor Cuomo’s staff—a session that was delayed by Hurricane Sandy. “Once we present our side to the governor, the DOT will have to take notice,” Goodwin predicted.
“There will be a change in policy at some point relatively soon. There are people in Albany who recognize that this has not worked.”
With state officials still on the sidelines, however, the standoff has deepened, dividing old allies and uniting one-time foes. The debate has spilled over onto the editorial pages of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and other news publications in the Park, with partisans on both sides accusing each other of dishonesty, naivete, and shortsightedness.
In my eight years as editor of the Enterprise, I’ve definitely never seen anything to rival the rail-trail debate for filling our opinion page,” said Peter Crowley. “People say it seems like we publish a letter or op-ed every day on the topic, and while that’s not true, still, there have been a ton of them—more than two hundred in less than two years.”
The Saranac Lake newspaper’s outdoors columnist, Joe Hackett, has derided the train’s “lack of any significant economic impact” and portrayed the railroad as “an annoyance” that should be converted into a trail. Yet local businesswoman Carla Sternberg, owner of the Two Horse Trading Company, a gift shop, told the paper that the railroad “has brought me a considerable amount of business during the tourism season.” ■