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Adirondacks are anomaly in ‘Rails-to-Trails’ doc

NYC PBS station airs program on many successful conversions, one major controversy

An Adirondack Scenic Railroad worker looks out of the back of the train as it leaves Saranac Lake’s Union Depot on Oct. 26, 2016, after its last ride of the season — and perhaps ever. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

SARANAC LAKE — A new public television documentary presents the Adirondack rail-trail debate in light of a rails-to-trails trend that is booming statewide.

New York City’s WLIW PBS station on Thursday broadcast “Rails-to-Trails,” the latest entry in its irregular “Treasures of New York” series. The video was posted online Sunday for streaming at www.wliw.org/programs/treasures-of-new-york/rails-to-trails-uztsz8.

Eight of the program’s 52 minutes are devoted to the Adirondack debate over whether to convert part of a railroad into a trail for bicycling, walking and snowmobiling. The Adirondack portion of the show starts at the 33:00-minute mark and ends at 41:00.

That part begins with an interview with Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley, conducted last year, about how this is the most divisive issue he’s seen during his time at the newspaper. At one point he noted that the Enterprise had published 626 letters to the editor and op-eds on this topic between 2008 and the time of the interview in 2016.

The program also includes six other interviews balanced between both sides of the argument: railroad supporters Carla Sternberg, a former Saranac Lake shop owner, retired Adirondack Park Agency staffer Steve Erman and Steven Engelhart, head of Adirondack Architectural Heritage; as well as trail backers Jim McCulley and Dick Beamish of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates and John Brockway, who owns Charlie’s Inn in Lake Clear.

Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley is interviewed by WLIW, a public television station from New York City, about the Adirondack rail-trail debate in a screen shot from the station’s new “Rails-to-Trails” documentary.

While the Adirondack reporting is scrupulously fair, the program as a whole celebrates the movement of reusing abandoned railroads as paths for biking and other recreation.

“A thousand miles of rail trails already wind through New York, each with its own fantastic story, each taking visitors on unforgettable journeys,” the narrator says at the end of the program. “No matter where you find them, rail trails are emerging as a vibrant sign of renewal throughout the state, the country and even the world.”

Rails-to-trails advocates are interviewed extensively about the trend and its background, and the show focuses on a series of conversions that, by all accounts, have successfully turned crumbling old infrastructure into economic engines. It also spends some time on the history of American railroading and interviews train enthusiasts.

It begins with the High Line, a second-story railroad on Manhattan’s west side that in 2009 reopened as an elevated park and is regularly packed with visitors who get a new view and experience of the city. The show then moves to a long bike path along the Erie Canal and the Walkway over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, where local visionaries managed to get a fire-damaged train bridge repaired and reopened as a pedestrian and bike crossing in 2009.

The Adirondack example is the only one in this program in which the train line is not fully abandoned. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad offers tourist excursions in summer and fall on roughly half of the 140 miles between Utica and Lake Placid. This conversion, planned by the state but held up by a lawsuit, stands out as being controversial, but it’s not the only one seen here. The camera crew also visits Queens, where millions of dollars have been spent planning the Queensway as a “people’s High Line” connecting ethnically diverse neighborhoods, but they also interview a neighborhood activist leading a “No Way Queensway” movement. He says a revived train would be better.

The program also covers Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to connect numerous existing paths and bike lanes to create what he calls the state’s longest bike trail, spanning the state from north to south as well as east to west.

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