As railroad supporters and multi-use trail advocates continue to debate the best use of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor, some observers are asking about the process that would be required to remove the tracks.
The answer, as it turns out, wouldn't be easy. It could involve many years of legal maneuvering.
Use of the corridor, which is owned by the state Department of Transportation, is dictated by a unit management plan authored by DOT and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, with input from the state Adirondack Park Agency and a 24-member Citizen Advisory Committee. The plan went into effect in 1996.
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad train stops at the Tupper Lake Train Depot Nov. 5 as it makes its way back to Utica for the winter.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
Both rail service and recreational activities are permitted on the 119-mile-long right of way, which is classified as a "travel corridor." The UMP itself is subject to revision every five years, although it hasn't been touched since it took effect 15 years ago.
A new group, the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, want to revise that plan with the goal of removing the rails at least between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. The group argues that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad's chance to prove itself as an economic engine has come to an end after 11 years, and it's time to try something new.
But the railroad also has a great deal of support, including an endorsement from the new North Country Regional Economic Development Council, a new state outreach effort tasked with prioritizing short- and long-term projects for state funding in seven North Country counties. In its draft strategic plan, submitted to the state Nov. 14, the council threw its support behind rehabilitating the railroad.
A brief history of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor
1891 - William Seward Webb starts building a railroad through the Adirondacks between Remsen and Malone.
1892 - New York Central Railroad starts running trains between Utica and the Tri-Lakes area.
1965 - Passenger service ceases on the corridor as New York Central declines.
1968 - Pennsylvania Railroad absorbs New York Central and becomes the Penn Central Transportation Company.
1972 - Freight service ceases.
1974 - State buys Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor.
1977 - State leases line to the Adirondack Railway Corporation.
1980 - Adirondack Railway Corporation runs passenger trains between Utica and Lake Placid during the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in February. It continues the service after the games but files for bankruptcy shortly afterward.
1991 - State acquires remainder of lease from Adirondack Railway Corporation. An Interdepartmental Task Force (DOT, DEC and APA) convenes to develop a management plan for the corridor.
1995 - Unit management plan is completed.
1996 - Unit management plan is signed into effect.
2000 - Adirondack Scenic Railroad starts running tourist trains in the fall, ending the season in October.
2001 - Adirondack Scenic Railroad begins its fist full season from May to October.
Removing the rails
The first step toward rail removal would be to revise the management plan, which represents one of the biggest hurdles for trail advocates.
"This is a unique situation," said the DOT's Dawn Klemm, manager of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. "It would all have to go back through the unit management plan before anything is changed."
Members of ARTA's steering committee, like Saranac Lake resident Lee Keet, have argued that if taxpayers want to revise the UMP to tear up the tracks, then policymakers should listen.
Klemm said it's not that simple.
"We (DOT) do not have enough staff," she said. "It would have to be done with the cooperation of DEC, and their first goal is to get unit management plans completed for areas that they don't have them done for yet. They want to get at least one management plan in process for everything they're looking at before they go back and readdress something that's already been done once."
Klemm noted that all parties involved in authoring the original UMP for the Remsen-Lake Placid corridor, including the APA, would need to be involved in revising it. She said the DOT's Adirondack Park specialist is working on a management plan for another corridor, so in the short term, the state is not well positioned to take on a project of that magnitude.
That doesn't mean a revision won't eventually happen, Klemm added.
"It (the UMP) will be opened when we have enough people to do that," she said. "When somebody tells me I have to do that, that's what I have to do. Right now, we're very happy with the way things are being run. We have two permit holders that use the corridor - the railroad and the snowmobilers - and it's working."
OK, but if a revision to the UMP is ordered, and if all sides agree to tear up the tracks - both likely to be long shots - then what?
Carl Knoch is manager of trail development for the National Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an organization that has overseen railroad-to-recreational trail conversion projects across the country.
In the case of the Remsen-Lake Placid corridor, he said the state would first need to determine that it no longer wants to support rail use there. The DOT spends an average of about $157,000 per year to maintain the rail corridor so the Adirondack Scenic Railroad can run seasonal tourist trains on part of it.
Knoch said in most cases, the state would need to file for discontinuation of service with the Surface Transportation Board. But he noted that because the state already owns the corridor, it may be able to simply terminate the operating agreement with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and pull the track.
"And then," Knoch said, "the state would determine how to dispose of the rail ties. The state would most likely salvage the rail."
A 2011 study by Camoin Associates, commissioned by AdkAction (of which Keet is a member), says removing the train tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake would cost about $2.1 million. The study claims that total would be offset entirely by salvage credits for both ties and rails.
Another obstacle is that the railroad is on the state and federal registers of historic places. How that would factor into the removal of the rails involves a whole other story.
What about Forest Preserve?
In a Guest Commentary published by the Enterprise on Oct. 20, Saranac Lake historian Phil Gallos said removing the train tracks in the Tri-Lakes would open the door to rail removal throughout the rest of the corridor. That, he argued, could lead to "powerful voices" like regional and national environmental groups calling for the corridor to revert to Forest Preserve.
John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council said his advocacy group would prefer the corridor to remain motorless between Horseshoe Lake and Beaver River - a swath of western Adirondack land that includes what the Council hopes will become the "Bob Marshall Wild Land Complex."
"We do not object to the train using the rail corridor," Sheehan said. "If the rails are not going to be used, our feeling is it should be a foot trail or some other non-mechanized travel way. The other sections of trail, we would have no objections to mixed recreational use."
Sheehan said his organization wouldn't argue for the elimination of snowmobiling between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. In 1988, he said the Council did call for non-motorized use along a small stretch of the corridor that borders the St. Regis Canoe Area, "but over time, our position evolved given the fact that it wasn't actually in the Canoe Area."
Klemm said that to her knowledge, questions about the Forest Preserve would be looked at "when and if" the UMP is revised.
David Winchell is the spokesman for DEC's Region 5, which includes the parts of the railroad in Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties. He said the corridor is currently under the jurisdiction of DOT, and that any change in use would first be considered by DOT and then addressed in a UMP amendment. That amendment would be reviewed by the APA to make sure it's consistent with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.
The APA's Keith McKeever said a revised UMP that calls for rail removal could trigger a host of state land classification issues that would take years to sort out.
Meanwhile, questions about private lands along the corridor are a bit more cut and dry, Klemm said.
In a Sept. 20 letter to the editor, Dan Ward of Saranac Lake said that "once the DOT abandons the rails, control will shift to other agencies and owners of land through which the right of way passes."
Klemm said that's not true.
"We bought the property from everybody; it's all bought and paid for," she said. "It's property owned by DOT."
A 1983 amendment to the National Trails System Act created a program known as "railbanking," in which abandoned rail lines are buried and converted to trails.
Knoch said railbanking would nullify any concerns about the Remsen-Lake Placid corridor reverting to Forest Preserve or private property.
"It preserves it as a rail corridor," he said. "If you railbank it, it protects it in perpetuity. And it wouldn't cost the state anything to railbank it because they wouldn't have to buy it from themselves."
According to Knoch, railbanking does two things: It preserves a corridor intact, and it maintains a corridor in "fit-to-be-rebuilt condition." He said abandoning a railroad without interim trail use lets a corridor deteriorate, so future upgrades to restore train use become more expensive.
"With a trail, you have a good surface, as well as maintenance of culverts and other features," Knoch said.
Tearing up the train tracks would involve several state agencies, rail advocates, trail supporters, communities and environmental groups - as well as politicians.
Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro, said she's tried to stay out of the fray because of how passionate both sides have been. She said it would be "wonderful" if a rail and a trail could coexist.
Sayward said she has concerns that a multi-use trail would not accommodate all users if it became part of the Forest Preserve.
"I worry that our snowmobilers and perhaps bikers would be left out of the picture," she said. "I know some of the areas may be a little more sensitive than others, and I'm not sure how that would work. I'd want to be sure that it's open to all users."
At the end of the day, Sayward said she will support either option.
"That might sound a little wishy-washy," she said, "but I think more discussion needs to happen before this is done."
State Sen. Betty Little struck a similar tune.
"Senator Little is continuing to listen to all sides," said Dan Mac Entee, her spokesman.
Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, however, knows exactly where she stands on the rails versus trails debate.
"I have been a supporter of Next Stop Tupper Lake going on six years," she said, referring to a grassroots group that built a replica of Tupper Lake's demolished train station and is working to bring Scenic Railroad service there.
Duprey said the effort to extend the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to Tupper Lake means a lot to her constituents, and she doesn't believe the argument over the corridor's future needs to be black and white. Next Stop Tupper Lake is now seeking state funds not only to upgrade the tracks but to put a trail beside them, too - something the ARTA says would be prohibitively expensive and extremely difficult to get state permits for.
"The enthusiasm in that community for the train is big, and I think it's a great project," Duprey said. "DOT has said they won't tear them up, so I think we'll have to find a way to make a rail with trail compatible."