I attended the meeting held by ARTA this past Tuesday, and although I personally support the concept of rail removal, I believe that the time is now to move forward with the side-by-side trail from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake. The town of North Elba has been working diligently and prudently to site a side-by-side trail since 2000. Have there been fits and starts? Absolutely. Are we closer now than we have ever been to getting it done? Absolutely. Would it be cheaper to build a recreational pathway without the rails in place? Absolutely.
The fact is, the tracks are there, they are not abandoned, and there is an advocacy group that supports their continuance as well. Some powerful local and national politicians are supporters of the rails. Does that mean they couldn't be swayed? No, but is that going to happen soon? Unlikely. Recently it was strongly suggested that North Elba, with the support of the Adirondack North Country Association and Essex County, apply for a federally funded byways grant. With a very short window of opportunity, we applied, and lo and behold, the grant was awarded. That, to me, indicates there is strong support for retaining the rails by some pretty well connected politicos. Do I like the way things seem to work sometimes? Not necessarily, but in this instance I say we take what has been procured and run with it.
At Tuesday's meeting it was mentioned many times that North Elba is going to build a trail terminating in Ray Brook. I want to clear up that misconception. In the recent past, the town attempted to consolidate two separate grants that had been previously awarded. When we first planned the trail, we broke it into two phases. The first phase went from Old Military Road in Lake Placid to the Scarface trail in Ray Brook. In 2003 we were awarded a federal grant of just under $800,000 for phase one. In 2007 we were awarded a federal grant of approximately $1,200,000 for phase two, which continues from the terminus of phase one to Brandy Brook Drive in Saranac Lake.
Unfortunately, the planning and permitting of the first phase took a lot longer than anyone anticipated; all the while, construction costs kept rising. In an attempt to get something moving, the town requested a consolidation of the two previously mentioned grants. Yes, in fact, that would have been a trail to Ray Brook, but the logic was that once that was built we would figure out a way to continue into Saranac Lake. The request to consolidate the grants was denied. Another curveball in this continuing project - we regrouped, sought the aforementioned byway funds and now have a third grant of approximately $1,200,000.
Now what? We have what we now believe to be enough money, with the grants and the local match, to finally get a trail built. Admittedly, we may have to get creative and possibly move out of the corridor for a small piece in Ray Brook that still needs to be worked out. Our plan now is to bid out the construction of phase one while simultaneously planning, permitting and then bidding phase two. We are confident that the planning and permitting of phase two will not be as prolonged as the process for phase one. While planning/permitting phase one, we had to wait almost three years for a determination on how close to the outer rail the trail could get without a fence. We have that answer. We also now know that gabions are preferred over boardwalk. There is almost no boardwalk planned in either phase, contrary to what has been indicated.
A number of times it was also inferred that the town will be strapping itself with an ongoing liability; there is absolutely nothing precluding a "friends group" from being formed to help with maintenance of the side-by-side trail. We need this family-friendly, safe trail built, which can now happen within the year.
Now my biggest concern is that we have a local match requirement with all the grants, so we will need public financial support. We will also need public participation to get this awesome thing built. I only hope that in the zeal to remove the rails we haven't lost some of the overwhelming support we have had to make this trail finally happen. I hope you will join me in supporting the town of North Elba in getting this done. Supporting this project while working toward removal, if that is your desire, works, too!
Chuck Damp lives in Ray Brook and is a former North Elba town councilman. He continues to be involved with planning the railside trail between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.