Railroad group’s facts aren’t always on track

Shortly after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday that the state is going through with a plan that would remove train tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, the Adirondack Rail Preservation Society released a statement announcing that it had filed a lawsuit in April against the state Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation.

The lawsuit contends that the APA and DEC failed to consider economic data, that the state cannot remove a railroad listed on the state and federal registers of historic places, and that DEC’s approval of the plan was “arbitrary and capricious.”

None of these claims, which led the nearly three-page press release, is new, but the release went on to make many other claims about the process of selecting the plan and those involved. Several of these arguments have dubious factual backing.

ARPS board President Bill Branson is quoted heavily in the release, and when contacted by phone Friday afternoon, he said that he stood by the press release.

“As far as I know, what’s in the release is factual,” Branson said Friday afternoon. “These are not off-the-wall assertions.”

He declined to answer some questions, citing the active lawsuit, but he did clarify one statement about the train that was made in the release.

APA departures

In the fourth paragraph of the press release, ARPS says “It is important to note, that although neither cited this particular case in their resignation, APA Chair, Lani Ulrich recently submitted her resignation. Dick Booth, another APA Commissioner, also submitted his resignation yesterday, citing overreaching by the Governor’s office and conformance issues with the State Land Master Plan on a number of recent decisions.”

Neither Booth nor Ulrich resigned from the APA board as ARPS stated, but instead said they would not seek reappointment. APA commissioners are appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate to serve four-year terms. Both Booth and Ulrich’s current terms end in June.

Contacted Wednesday afternoon, Booth, who is a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca and is in the middle of final exams, said he was far too busy to do anything other than give a cursory glance to the news about Alternative 7 going forward.

When told of the mention of him in the ARPS press release, he said that he wouldn’t respond to that release specifically since he hadn’t read it.

“I can state to you categorically, my decision not to seek reappointment has absolutely nothing to do with the railroad issue,” Booth said. “I did vote against the agency’s decision when it happened, but my decision not to seek a four-year term reappointment has absolutely nothing to do with the railroad issue.”

Ulrich, who is personally one of the parties ARPS sued, did not return a phone call requesting comment. At the APA meeting where she announced that she would not be seeking reappointment, she said the long drive to APA headquarters in Ray Brook and time with her family were the reasons behind her decision.

“Politically influential individuals”

The fifth paragraph of the ARPS press release states, “Branson further noted that the campaign to remove the rails has been funded by a few politically-influential individuals, who have been supportive of the Governor and who are not sufficiently concerned with the economic future of the region and the preservation of a historic resource.”

Bethan Maher, CEO of Adirondack Scenic Railroad, suggested to WIBX radio in Utica Wednesday that Cuomo’s decision might have been influenced by money.

“You keep talking about pay to play in the governor’s office,” she said. “I certainly think that could be the case here.”

Asked by the Enterprise on Wednesday who these individuals are, Maher wouldn’t say.

“I’m not in the business of naming names,” she said. “That’s for investigative journalism to do.” When pressed, she said she would need to consult with a lawyer before saying anything else. She had not yet returned a phone call as of Friday night.

North Country Public Radio has stated it could find no evidence of campaign or charitable donations shaping rail-trail decision.

“NCPR investigated these claims last winter and could find no evidence to support them, no pattern of campaign or charitable contributions, no network of soft influence,” the station reported Friday morning. “We also interviewed numerous local and state officials who all rejected the idea that soft money had shaped the debate.”

NCPR noted that the railroad also has its share of politically connected people who support it.

“Prominent railroad boosters include Garry Douglas, who co-chairs Governor Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council panel, and Kate Fish, head of the Adirondack North Country Association,” NCPR said in November.

No other transit

Branson was also quoted in the release saying, “Other than a few flights a week from Boston into Saranac Lake, there is no public transit to get to Lake Placid, the heart of the Adirondack tourism industry.”

It’s actually a few flights a day. Cape Air has three round-trip flights per day in and out of Saranac Lake, for 21 flights per week. The airline has also offered a fourth flight during the summer.

“They don’t fly every day,” Branson said when asked about that Friday. “The schedule is the schedule, but they’re small twin Cessnas and they aren’t capable of flying in bad weather the way most airlines would.”

Also, there is other public transit, including trains. Amtrak offers daily passenger service through the Adirondacks along Lake Champlain, including tickets to Lake Placid with a bus ride from Westport. Trailways bus service also has daily service throughout the region, including to Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

“Only railroad in the Adirondacks”

Branson went on to say in the release, “We do not feel DEC listened to the public, or conducted a fair review of the economic data, before proposing to forever destroy the only railroad into the Adirondacks.” The railroad at issue here isn’t the only one in the Park, however.

The Saratoga and North Creek railroad operates both within and outside of the Adirondack Park, but is an operating railroad in the Adirondacks. The railroad offers passenger service between it’s two namesake towns, connecting to the Amtrak national rail network in Saratoga Springs.

There is also freight and the Amtrak passenger line between New York City and Montreal, with several stops within the Blue Line.

“We’re the only ones that go to the heart of the Adirondacks,” Branson said when asked about his statement. “It’s the only railroad that goes to the center of the Adirondacks or that can access the High Peaks.”