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State unveils new rail trail plan

A section of the Remsen-Lake Placid railway runs behind North Country Community College in Saranac Lake. A state draft unit management plan proposes that these rails are ripped up and replaced with a multi-use trail. (Enterprise photo —Justin A. Levine)

The state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation released a draft unit management plan amendment for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor Tuesday evening.

As with an earlier version, the proposed amendment calls for train tracks along a 34-mile stretch between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid to be removed and replaced with a trail for biking, snowmobiling and other recreation. It also calls for that track material to be reused to renovate and upgrade a 45-mile stretch of railway between Tupper Lake and Big Moose, and it outlines the possible expansion of rail service along an 85-mile route south of Tupper Lake to Remsen, where the state-owned portion of the railroad ends en route to Utica.

The state’s press release announcing the plan included praise from a past critic. Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society and a vocal opponent of the plan in the past, was quoted in the release saying ARPS and its supporters “look forward to continued initiatives supporting the success of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.”

“This extraordinary investment assures the ability to extend accessible passenger rail excursion and scenic services, and their related economic development benefits, to Tupper Lake and the northern region of the Adirondacks,” he said in a statement.

Branson could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

This UMP amendment largely mirrors a previous iteration that ARPS successfully challenged in court. The nonprofit group operates tourist trains between Utica and Old Forge under the Adirondack Scenic Railroad name, and it also did so between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid between 2000 and 2016. In its suit, ARPS argued that removing the tracks between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid would violate the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and historic preservation law. State Supreme Court Judge Robert Main Jr. agreed, shooting down the state’s plan in 2017.

The state did not appeal the ruling. Instead, the Department of Environmental Conservation acquired three parcels of land in the corridor in Saranac Lake that it had not owned — part of the North Country Community College property — and the state Adirondack Park Agency changed the State Land Master Plan’s definition of a “travel corridor” to more clearly allow for the removal of tracks on all or part of the corridor. The APA finalized that definition change last December.

Now a letter of resolution between the Department of Transportation, DEC, APA and state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is being drafted. This letter, according to the UMP amendment, will outline “ongoing consultation and required management actions that NYSDEC and NYSDOT must undertake to address adverse impacts to the historic resources in the corridor.”

In the news release, several locals hailed the development as a positive step.

“Tupper Lake is excited to be the destination where the train from Utica and Remsen will intersect with the rail trail to Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, utilizing our beautiful depot in downtown Tupper Lake,” Tupper Lake town Supervisor Patricia Littlefield said in a statement. “We anxiously look forward to the project completion and the day we can welcome new visitors to our charming town.”

Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau said a new “world-class rail trail” connecting the village to surrounding communities would “provide a great recreational opportunity and tourist attraction.

“Residents and tourists will love it. Its development complements other investments in the community and will help our community to thrive.”

Adirondack Rail Trail Advocates, a local organization that helped swing much public opinion from rails to trail, also expressed pleasure at the new plan.

“Our organization was formed more than 10 years ago to promote this concept, and we are grateful to Governor Cuomo and the DEC, DOT and APA for making this happen,” said ARTA member Joe Mercurio of Saranac Lake.

Jim McCulley of Lake Placid, a member of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club and ARTA, said in the release that the year-round trail will “quickly become a quintessential trail in the Adirondacks,” and will “allow communities to have a reliable trail surface for tourism to add to the regional economy.”

The DEC and DOT are scheduled to give a presentation on their rail corridor plans at the APA’s monthly meeting Thursday in Ray Brook.