The state's decision to reopen the unit management plan for the hotly contested Adirondack railroad corridor continues to reverberate throughout the region.
State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald, one of the key players in the decision to reopen the plan, told the Enterprise Thursday that she believes the proposal the state has crafted for the 119-mile Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor "makes a lot of sense."
However, McDonald cautioned that there are "no forgone conclusions" about revising the management plan.
"We see this as a viable alternative, but we also think it's important that we reopen the UMP process and get public input through that process," she said.
Following a series of public meetings last fall, state DOT and Department of Environmental Conservation officials said they expected to make a decision on reopening the UMP by the end of 2013. Why did it take another seven-plus months?
"This is not an easy decision that we have before us, so we wanted to make sure that we fleshed it out and looked at various alternatives," McDonald said. "We didn't take this decision lightly. That's why it took longer than we initially anticipated."
The state could have just decided to announce that it was reopening the UMP. Instead the DOT and DEC, which jointly manage the corridor, floated a proposal to evaluate use of the Tupper Lake to Lake Placid segment for a recreational trail while examining opportunities to "maintain and realize the full economic potential of rail service on the remainder of the corridor." The state also said it would look at options to create alternative snowmobile corridors between Old Forge and Tupper Lake using state and conservation easement lands.
Why come out with that concept now, before the UMP process has even started?
"Because from our perspective, even though there's no forgone conclusions, we thought the Tupper Lake to Lake Placid stretch makes sense from a trail perspective because there's a lot of recreational traffic in that section, and we think that making a solid investment on the rail side, basically from Big Moose to Tupper Lake, makes a lot of sense," McDonald said. "Last November, Commissioner Martens and I took a rail/high-rail trip all the way up. We saw some of the challenges up, both from the trail and rail perspective, and we thought putting those two out there made a lot of sense."
Asked if there were other options the state considered, such as a longer recreation trail or rail service on the length of the corridor, McDonald said, "No, but that's why we're going to go through the scoping process and see what the public has to say."
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs the Adirondack Scenic Railroad's tourist trains at both ends of the corridor, has said its success has been hampered the state's failure to provide it with a multi-year lease and upgrade the railroad tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake. McDonald said she's heard those complaints often.
"What we've heard from our rail partners is the uncertainty has hurt them in making capital investment," McDonald said. "By looking at that piece between Big Moose and Tupper Lake, we're hoping to bring some certainty to that."
McDonald said it would take a "significant investment" to upgrade the railroad tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake for regular rail service. Asked how that work could be funded, McDonald named various competitive rail programs, the state's economic development council process and federal sources.
"We don't know what those costs are, but I think we're very open to working with the railroad to see how those investments would be made," she said.
Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau said Thursday that he's happy the state agreed to update the UMP. His board, and many other local governments along the corridor, had asked the state to reopen the plan more than a year and a half ago.
Rabideau said there's "some wisdom" in the proposal DOT and DEC are pitching for the corridor, but he said he'd rather see the opposite take place.
"The section (of rail) between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake should be left in place because the trail is already approved with the rail in that section only, and (the train) does give our downtown and village a bump during the tourism season," Rabideau said. "The rest of it, I could be convinced to make it a trail only."
The town of North Elba had pursued plans for a rail-side trail between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid for more than 10 years, but town officials abandoned the plan in September 2013 due to what they said were mounting engineering costs and a complicated and lengthy review process.
Another Saranac Lake resident, Phil Gallos, said he was not surprised that the UMP was reopened. He attributed it to the pressure placed on the state by Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, which wants to remove the rails from Lake Placid to Old Forge and replace them with a recreational trail.
However, Gallos said he was miffed by the state agencies announcing their own proposal for how the corridor could be used.
"The idea of reopening the plan, one would think, is to get all the ideas out on the table for the entire corridor, and that the state, (DEC Commissioner) Joe (Martens) and Joan (McDonald), would not be sticking their noses into it saying, 'Here, start with this,'" Gallos said. "To me, that's bogus. I don't know who they're trying to mollify with that, but it corrupts the whole process."
Tupper Lake village Mayor Paul Maroun has publicly supported keeping the rails in place along the corridor, and that hasn't changed. The crux of Maroun's argument is that the state would never agree to replace the tracks if they were removed.
Maroun agrees that increasing snowmobile access to Tupper Lake would be good for the economy there, but he's afraid that, once the tracks are gone, environmental groups would step in and try to keep snowmobilers from traveling through wilderness areas that flank the corridor.
Maroun said he wants the state to commit to upgrading the tracks. He said that would make the Adirondack Scenic Railroad more viable.
"They only have a month lease option, so they've been claiming for years that if they could a lease for 20 years, they'd have more private investors," Maroun said.
Maroun said trains could still have a future in the Adirondacks, especially with the announcement that development on the Adirondack Club and Resort project will begin. He also said he thinks people will use trains more if gas prices keep rising.
"I also think there's potential, if everyone would work together instead of both groups being pitted against each other, that we could come up with a rails and trails system that would really work," Maroun said. "I think that way you capture everybody."
ARTA board member and Tupper Lake resident Hope Frenette said opening the UMP is a good thing, but she said ARTA is still committed to seeing the tracks removed and replaced with a trail. A compromise, she said, is not possible.
"I think that's totally wishful thinking on the train people's part," Frenette said. "They're just ignoring the reality of terrain. It even stated in the original UMP that it would be unrealistic to do side-by-side the entire way along the corridor. It would have to break away in many areas."
Frenette also disagreed that portions of the trail would subsequently become off-limits to snowmobilers.
"I'm not going to say nobody's going to try to do that, because I'm sure there are some people out there who would love to keep snowmobilers out of the woods," Frenette said. "But are there enough of them to make a difference? I don't think so."
Frenette said she thinks most environmentalists would be more against cutting new snowmobile trails than allowing snowmobiles on the existing corridor.
DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said the process of revising the UMP is tentatively scheduled to begin in September with public scoping sessions and an initial public comment period. He said a draft UMP is projected to be released in February.