Tuesday night the town of North Elba board voted to abandon the railside trail that we had been working to develop since 2000. I fully understand the decision and the logic that elicited the vote, although I disagree with the totality of the proposal. First, a bit of a synopsis:
As recent as May, we had drafted bid specifications anticipating releasing the project to contractors to actually start building the first phase this fall. As we passed the draft around to the New York State Department of Tranportation and Federal Highway Administration, a question was raised about the Army Corps and their sign-off. Early on (2003 or so) there was an outreach to the Corps, and according to the rules at the time, they didn't feel that our project was jurisdictional. We therefore worked on that premise as we moved the project along.
Unfortunately, two things occurred that caused this most recent setback: We didn't get a written statement from the Corps in 2003, stating the project was nonjurisdictional, and secondly, the Corps wetland regulations dramatically changed in 2008. No one was more frustrated than me on our recent on-site visit with John Connell of the Army Corps. I understand John is only doing his job, and personally he seems like a real nice guy, but his message was such that an unforeseen additional expenditure would be necessary to meet the Corps' needs. The Corps wetland scrutiny would require a full set of delineated maps with wetlands, streams and open water on either side of the tracks noted and detailed. All culverts, regardless of their impact by trail development, would have to be detailed as well as GPS coordinates of same. In addition, the wetland mitigation plan that had been approved by the Adirondack Park Agency in our permit most likely would not have satisfied the Army Corps. As a result, we would have to have identified a new/additional project to mitigate, formulate a plan and quantify its costs. We asked our engineers to figure the additional costs to the project and still have not seen a formal number, but just the planning part alone will be tens of thousands of dollars, never mind the mitigation component.
Philosophically, I have some issues with the rules being the same in a 6-million-acre park that is about 40 percent wetlands as they are in an arid area of the country, but so be it. I would also argue that some of the wetlands that we propose to minimally impact are only there as a result of the water flow being disturbed by the fill introduced by track placement about a century ago, and it is all within a 100-foot corridor that is already disturbed. But that isn't on the table right now, either.
In addition to the Army Corps needs, the state announced on June 6 the review of the unit management plan for the rail corridor. The town was given a bit of a lead on the news, so it was decided that we would put on hold the bid release while meeting with the Corps and allowing the UMP review process to proceed. This, to me, was very logical and prudent move.
As is evident, there is a grassroots campaign afoot to remove the tracks, championed by Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates and their supporters. Personally/selfishly, I support ARTA's ultimate goal and fully agree that a world-class recreational trail would be an asset for visitors and locals alike. Purely on the economics, the cost-benefits of rail rehabilitation don't seem to add up. That being said, I still contend that the tracks are here and they are currently being used. The UMP review may conclude that removal is the best thing or not; at this point we just don't know.
That is why I question the totality of the town's resolution. What happens now if the review process concludes the tracks remain? Are we going to forget about this project altogether? There is a groundswell of support for a trail alongside the tracks. Have we just abandoned that possibility? Is it too late to now save the grants that we have secured, never mind the money that members of the public contributed? I know there is frustration out there and there is passion on either side, but none of us knows what the decision is going to be. Let's hope that we haven't lost any chance of moving forward if it stays as is.
Chuck Damp lives in Ray Brook and is a former North Elba town councilman.