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The people speak

And they’ve got a lot to say about unit management plan

‘I’m glad there was a compromise. I wish (the tracks) could have gone to Saranac Lake.’ Doreen Gorgas, Saranac Lake

TUPPER LAKE — At the first of four public hearings on the state’s new draft amendment of 1996 Remsen-Lake Placid travel corridor unit management plan, the public voiced its many ideas and opinions about the plan for state Departments of Environmental Conservation and Transportation officials to hear, with most falling into one of four categories.

The state is holding these hearings after the release of a UMP for the travel corridor which calls for refurbished railroad lines from Big Moose to Tupper Lake and a multi-use trail from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid.

“All I can think of is Yogi Berra,” DEC Spokesman David Winchell said as the meeting began. “‘It’s like deja vu all over again.'”

Most statements fell into one of four categories: liking the proposed plan; wanting to rip up the rails south of Tupper Lake and extend the trail to Big Moose; wanting to rehabilitate the rails north of Tupper Lake and extend train service to Lake Placid; or wanting to extend railroad service to Saranac Lake, with a trail to Lake Placid.

DEC Regional Director Bob Steggeman said the public comments brought up several new things for the state to look at when it implements its plan, but said that he did not hear any opinions he had not heard before.

Winchell said the state chose its current plan because it has determined it to be the “best option,” but many of the speakers tried to dissuade them of that, one way or another.

“This is a process for participants to provide specific suggestions or identify concerns with the proposals (to the DEC and DOT),” Winchell said. “We are the decision-makers.”

Politicians support plan

Some speakers, mostly politicians, said they love the current plan the way it is, praising it as a fair compromise.

Tupper Lake Town Supervisor Patti Littlefield said it is a “Win-win for all of us here in Tupper Lake,” and presented the DEC with a resolution the town board passed supporting the plan.

Lindy Ellis, a Franklin County legislator and chair of the Saranac Lake Parks and Trails Advisory Board, said she has seen the economic benefits of trails on her bike adventures.

“A multi-use trail really has a transformative ability to positively impact the economics,” Ellis said. “People are sweating, working, traveling, enjoying, getting very hungry, stopping and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner … and then looking for places where they can stay.”

Tupper Lake village Mayor Paul Maroun said Tupper Lake is the “best benefactor” of the plan. He said Tupper Lake is ready for the increased tourism the trains and trail are proposed to bring in, and said maybe it will help ease some of the over-hiking problem in the High Peaks and Keene.

Tupper Lake town Councilman John Quinn called it a “well-thought-out … compromise.”

New ideas

Most who supported plans different than the current one still spoke excitedly about the possibility of a trail or train in the area. Some offered suggestions they think will make both better.

Quinn asked the DEC to add a culvert to the Underwood railroad bridge which runs over the Raquette River to prevent flooding like the town faced in 2011. He also said the state should consider allowing class 2 e-bikes on the trail, as he said they will not create a nuisance. Currently, only class 1 bikes are slotted for use on the trail. Class 1 e-bikes have a drive system that is activated by pedaling and class 2 include a throttle.

Joe Kimpflen from the Tupper Lake History Museum board said the museum, which moved into the train station owned by Next Stop Tupper Lake this summer, would benefit from both rails and trails extending from the station. He said he believes there is enough room in the station for all organizations to be there.

“It could be very complementary, the trail, the rail and the museum,” Kimpflen said.

Jan Yaworski from the Tupper Lake Joint Planning Board said she lives on Oak Street and requested a sound barrier for train noise and privacy built along the proposed parking lot by Oak Street, extending to Cedar Street.

David Staszak and Pat Peebles from Saranac Lake both requested side-by-side trails for snowmobiles and cross-country skiing because they said it is difficult for the two to coexist. Staszak said snowmobilers are nice but that their sleds are not good for cross-country ski trails. Peebles said snowmobiles can rip up cross country trails until she can’t recognize them.

All train versus all trail

Though the state UMP draft amendment splits the corridor between rails and trails, advocates for both campaigned hard at the meeting for their preferred mode of transportation to expand to the entire length of the corridor.

“I’m probably going to get shot, because I’m for the railroad,” said Lee Foster, a former railman and Adirondack Scenic Rail Corporation rail bike runner.

Railroad-only supporters were in the minority at this meeting, based on speakers and clap volume.

Foster said rail bikes brought 44,000 people to Saranac Lake when they were running.

“Is that trail going to make 44,000 people?” he asked.

“Yes,” the answer trickled in from some of the seats of the Tupper Lake High School auditorium.

“I don’t think so,” Foster said.

Foster questioned the legitimacy of state ownership of the corridor, saying the property owners on the right-of-way never got money when the state bought it in 1972.

Foster called for the rail line to be refurbished to Lake Placid to be used for transportation of people and industry supplies.

The majority of those who stood up to speak called for removing the rails to Big Moose and turning that stretch into a trail too. While some of these all-trail supporters came from outside Tupper Lake and some from inside, almost all were snowmobilers.

“It’s going backwards,” Tupper Laker Hope Frennette said of the current plan to start rail rehabilitation in 2020 and trail construction in 2021. “We should be building the trail first and not the rail.”

She said the trail is key to bringing commerce to Tupper Lake in the winter.

Tupper Laker Maureen Peroza identified herself as a “former rail enthusiast” and said that she now believes a trail is the best way to improve Tupper Lake.

“I remember going to a (railroad) fundraising party that four people came to,” Peroza said. “My faith began to waver.”

Peroza said that while rail bikes bring in tourists, a trail that can support regular bikes is better. She said she would not celebrate the current rails and trails plan because she believes there is a better option out there.

“You’re going to build a trail down to Big Moose station if you have any common sense at all,” said trail coordinator for New York Snowmobile Association Jim Rolf.

“I think we are really missing the boat by not taking the tracks out to Big Moose at least,” said President of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club Jim McCulley. “You have 5,000 people every weekend in Old Forge that would drive here, an hour an 15 minutes, an hour and 20 minutes if tracks were removed. What would that do for your winter business?”

McCulley also spoke about the environmental aspect of trains. He said he lived next to the station in Lake Placid and that residents should be concerned about noise and the smell that he said the creosote and carcinogens from railroad ties put off.

“There’s just no point in continuing that railroad because of the maintenance,” said George Cook from Saranac Lake. “Once the trail is set up the maintenance will be minimal.”

Deb Christy, president of the St. Lawrence Snowmobile Association, said her 1,400 member club would love to have trails they could ride from Old Forge to Lake Placid.

Craig Harris, president of the Childwold Snowpackers looked at the DEC representatives and said, “Guys I really feel you shortchanged us.”

He later said that the scenic railroad is run with “corporate welfare” while the snowmobilers have a more grassroots operation.

Tupper Laker and rail advocate Jim Ellis later disagreed. He said trail advocates were “aided and abetted by the snowmobile lobby,” which he said is “one of the largest contributors to political campaigns” according to information he found on the state Department of State website.

Ellis was the sole supporter of a combined rail and trail path along the length of the corridor that night. He questioned the legality of the plan and wondered why the DEC was heading up the proposal.

He said that while he was the principal of the school district in 1982 Tupper Lake graduated 162 students. This last year the graduating class was 48. He said he wants to bring families back to town.

Pat Mccluskey from Conifer spoke last, saying he rode the train when he was five and 12 years old.

“It’s nice,” he said, and shrugged. “But the long term agenda (of spending millions on rehabbing the tracks) … the train’s not going to bring that much money in.”

The Saranac Lake option

Saranac Lake couple Keith and Doreen Gorgas both pushed for a rail line which meets the start of the trail in their town.

“I want to say congratulations to Tupper Lake,” Keith said. “This is a wonderful thing for Tupper Lake. Being from Saranac Lake it’s a horrible thing for Saranac Lake.”

“I have seen the decrease in tourism with the lack of the trains,” Doreen said. “I’m glad there was a compromise, I wish (the tracks) could have gone to Saranac Lake.”

She also asked why there is not a public hearing scheduled in Saranac Lake.

What’s next

On Wednesday night the second public hearing was held in Lake Placid, featuring some old and new talking points. Thursday night, Dec. 5, another one will be held in Old Forge at the View Arts Center from 6 to 8 p.m. Another hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 19 in Utica.

Email or letter comments can be sent to the DEC until Jan. 8.

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