The state has proposed converting the Adirondack railroad corridor between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid to a multi-use recreational trail while boosting rail service along the rest of the corridor as far north as Tupper Lake.
The state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation announced Wednesday that they will seek public comment on a possible amendment to the 1996 unit management plan for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor, which the state owns and the two agencies jointly manage.
The announcement ends months of speculation about whether the agencies would reopen the UMP, and it follows several years of debate about the best use of the 119-mile corridor, between railroad advocates and those who support converting the corridor to a trail. DOT and DEC held a series of public meetings last fall on the issue as they weighed whether to reopen the plan.
An Adirondack Scenic Railroad train rolls through Saranac Lake on Sept. 25, 2013.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
"In response to public interest, we are reopening the Unit Management Plan, providing new opportunities to engage local communities and support the regional economy as we plan for the corridor's future," DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald said in a press release.
The release said the review of the UMP "will evaluate use of the Tupper Lake to Lake Placid segment for a recreational trail.
"It will also examine opportunities to maintain and realize the full economic potential of rail service on the remainder of the corridor. In addition, the state will review options to create and expand alternative snowmobile corridors to connect communities from Old Forge to Tupper Lake on existing state lands and conservation easements."
The compromise plan drew both praise and concern from the two groups that have been battling over the rail corridor.
"I think it's a first step in the right direction," said Joe Mercurio of Saranac Lake, president of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. ARTA has pushed the state to replace the rails between Lake Placid and Old Forge with a 90-mile recreational trail for biking, hiking, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. "Obviously we were thinking long-term, long-range and the whole 90 miles, and we haven't by any means given up on that. I got a feeling this was a compromise on the part of DEC and DOT, and the various interests: us being one of them and the railroad die-hards being the others."
In a prepared statement, ARTA said the proposed recreational trail between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid would attract tens of thousands of new visitors to the Tri-Lakes and provide local residents with "a new, safe, way to recreate and commute."
Mercurio said ARTA would push hard against restoring rail service to the section of the corridor south of Tupper Lake.
"As a taxpayer, I don't want to see more of my money going to reconstitute a rail line between Tupper Lake and Old Forge in order to generate passenger and freight service for which there's no demand, hasn't been for 42 years and probably will never be," Mercurio said.
The Adirondack Rail Preservation Society operates the Adirondack Scenic Railroad's seasonal tourist trains between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, and between Utica and Big Moose. It wants the state to restore the tracks along the corridor for passenger and freight service and build a recreational trail next to the tracks, where feasible, and reroute it through surrounding forest in areas where the corridor is too narrow. The group had argued against reopening the UMP. ARPS had a mixed response to Wednesday's announcement.
"While ARPS applauds the state for having taken both a balanced and objective approach to the review process, this organization as well as constituents from the Mohawk Valley to the High Peaks remain eager for resolution regarding the remainder of the corridor, between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid," ARPS Executive Director Bethan Maher said in a press release. "The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society is confident that New York State will uphold the original UMP decision, retaining and rehabilitating rail infrastructure over the entire length of the corridor, recognizing that this is not and should not be an 'either-or' proposition. .... Furthermore, we are excited that New York State has committed itself to renewed investment in rail infrastructure and will work towards making rail service fully functional."
Although the state's press release clearly said DOT and DEC will evaluate the possibility of a recreational trail on the Lake Placid to Tupper Lake segment, ARPS President Bill Branson said he doesn't believe the state is seriously considering that proposal. He said his view is based on repeated conversations he's had with DOT officials.
"They're not proposing anything," Branson said. "What they're doing is proposing to review it yet again for the stretch between Tupper and Placid. What they're telling you is they're being sensitive to everybody's interests and making a renewed investment in the infrastructure from Remsen to Tupper."
Branson said he expects the UMP review process to last a year-and-a-half to two years.
DEC and DOT, in their press release, said they will prepare the UMP and a draft environmental impact statement that will "explore opportunities to increase recreational use of the rail corridor and ensure it promotes tourism and economic growth in the surrounding communities." The public will be able to review and comment on a draft scope that outlines significant issues and environmental impacts, as well as the draft UMP and draft EIS when they are deemed complete.
"We recognize that the future of the Remsen to Lake Placid Travel Corridor is important to local residents, communities and the regional economy, and the UMP process is the appropriate way to determine the best use of the corridor," DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said in a press release.
In 2012, almost all towns and villages along the railroad corridor passed resolutions calling on the state to either remove the tracks or reopen the UMP.
Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall said the state's decision was the appropriate one.
"This is what I thought a year ago should have happened," Randall said.
In the long run, Randall said a trail is "the logical next step" and that ultimately there will be recreational uses for that part of the corridor. He said the community needs to discuss the issues more. Both the Lake Placid village and town of North Elba boards have voted in favor of a trail.
"I think our communities recognize that outdoor recreation is very valuable," Randall said.
State Sen. Betty Little and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey said they think it's appropriate DEC reopens the management plan.
"I've heard from a lot of people on both sides of the issue, and I'm not surprised," Little said. "I think it's a good thing they're looking at it."
"Although some may feel this is a further delay in the process, I commend Commissioner McDonald of DOT and Commissioner Martens of DEC for listening to concerns of the residents and seeking additional public comment and study," Duprey wrote in an email.
The debate over the railroad corridor's future has been played out at public meetings and in countless letters to the editor and guest commentaries to the Enterprise over the last few years. The tenor of that debate has been fierce and, at times, personal. Will that change as the process of revisiting the UMP moves forward?
"I think it's time to put that aside, move on and get things accomplished," Mercurio said. "I'm tired of name calling. I never got heavily involved in that aspect of it in the first place. I tried to be the so-called voice of moderation for ARTA. It hasn't always been easy."
Tupper Lake reactions
Some people in Tupper Lake saw the announcement as a good first step.
ARTA board member Chris Keniston said he is not against the Adirondack Scenic Railroad; he just thinks it's time to try something different.
"I've lived on this corridor for 40 years, and I've seen nothing happen with it," Keniston said. "I don't want to bash the train, and they gave it a good run, but I just think people are coming to the Adirondacks for outdoor recreation. I think this is an asset that has been way underutilized."
Keniston noted that the nearby Fish Creek and Rollins Pond campgrounds attract thousands of visitors every summer. Since the corridor runs right by the Rollins Pond, Keniston thinks a trail there provide an easy access route for campers looking to ride bikes into Tupper Lake.
"Having access to a recreational trail such as is being proposed would be an unbelievable asset, especially to the communities of Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake because those are very doable bike trips," Keniston said.
Keniston said replacing the rails with a trail south of Tupper Lake would increase snowmobile traffic from Old Forge, which is seen as the snowmobiling capital of the Adirondacks.
Tupper Lake Free Press newspaper owner Dan McClelland's position is more in the middle. He has been a strong supporter of the train along with a parallel trail, and he said he would love to see the Tri-Lakes communities connected by rail for things like excursion and dinner trains.
"I'm not in favor of tearing up the tracks between Tupper and Lake Placid," McClelland said. "I still prefer the rail and trail, though. I think we can do both. They don't have to be exclusive."
McClelland said the UMP process could tie up the issue for years, but he said the fact that there will be a discussion on the fate of the corridor is encouraging.
"Having both rail and trail has been Next Stop Tupper Lake's position, and it's been the ARPS position all of this time," McClelland said. "We need them both."