LAKE PLACID - Bill Branson and Ed Kennedy of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society came to the North Elba Town Board meeting Tuesday night to try and learn why the town has refused to support an extension of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.
They got their answer.
During a 40-minute discussion, town leaders said they felt the existing railroad service has had little to no economic impact on Lake Placid and that the railroad corridor between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid could be better used as a recreational path for bicycles and snowmobiles.
Bill Branson, left, and Ed Kennedy of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society met with the North Elba Town Board on Tuesday night.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"It's fair to say there are mixed feelings about the railroad in Lake Placid," said town Supervisor Roby Politi. "I think the people feel it's a nice attraction, but a financial boondoggle."
Town Councilman Bob Miller said the train doesn't bring anyone to Lake Placid.
"When I see the train go by, I don't see people on the train," he said. "I have to wonder if it would not be a better use of that corridor to have it as a recreational pathway for people that live here and for visitors."
"I have nothing against the railroad," added Councilman Jay Rand. "I'm just not quite convinced that for us, economically, it's going to have that much of an impact."
Town residents have voiced much stronger support for a bike path, according to Councilman Jack Favro.
"The bike path is very important to us," he said. "We believe, economically, the bike path is the way to go."
Branson, president of the railroad group's board of directors, and Kennedy, a board member, had asked for the meeting to discuss ways to foster a better partnership with the town.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which administers the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, is trying to build support for an extension of its tourist trains, and to possibly provide freight service.
Currently, the railroad only operates between Utica and Old Forge and between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. The group is looking for as much as $13 million in state and federal funding to restore end to end operations between Utica and Lake Placid, which Branson said would bring more tourists to the area.
"There are people very interested in making a train ride up here," he said.
Kennedy said they could have service running between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid within the next year. If all goes according to plan, the entire line could be operational by 2012.
Both men said their plans have been well received by political leaders and residents in the other towns along the route, but not the town of North Elba.
"Is there a specific problem you folks have with the railroad in your town?" Kennedy asked.
Councilman Chuck Damp said the mixed feelings about the railroad may stem from a 1998 meeting where the idea of a bike path running along the railroad tracks was first discussed.
"Representatives of your group were very emphatically against sharing the corridor," Damp said. "That, in essence, formed camps, and it was quite clear we weren't going to get anywhere with the current leadership."
Branson said the organization has changed over the last five years.
"We're trying to morph to make this outfit a successful part of the tourist trade and make a proper business out of it," Branson said. "We've been morphing our structure, our board members, our volunteers and our employees to a different way of thinking."
Kennedy asked why the railroad and a bike path couldn't co-exist.
"There's plenty of room to create a bike path there," he said. "If we could have both the bike path and the railroad side-by-side, then it's a win-win for everybody."
But town officials said the costs of engineering a bike path next to the railroad tracks were "formidable," even with $2 million in grant funding. That's why the board shelved the project indefinitely last year.
"To go around the wetlands cost us a lot more money," Favro said. "But if we were up on the railroad bed, it would be a different story."
Town officials also said removing the railroad tracks would extend the snowmobiling season on the corridor, which is owned by the state Department of Transportation. To slide over the tracks without hitting them, snowmobiles need a lot more snow.
But Branson argued that it would take the town years to try and get the railroad tracks removed because they're part of a historic corridor.
Politi had talked with a DOT representative recently and learned the state has no plans to remove the tracks.
As the meeting drew to a close, Branson and Kennedy offered to support the town's efforts to get more funding for a bike path if the town would endorse the extension of the railroad.
Town leaders made no commitments but said they were open to continuing a dialogue.
"We are interested, provided you get what you want and we get what we want," Politi said.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.