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Rail-trail hearings wrap up

LAKE PLACID — It was deja vu all over again … again, and state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman David Winchell was quoting Yogi Berra.

Winchell started the second of four public hearings on the state’s new draft amendment of the 1996 Remsen-Lake Placid travel corridor unit management plan the same way as the first, using the Major League Baseball catcher’s famous quote to punctuate how long the UMP-development process has been and how many false starts it has seen. The second and third hearings, in Lake Placid on Wednesday and Old Forge on Thursday saw the public voice more of the same ideas and opinions about the plan to state DEC and Department of Transportation officials.

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.

Though many members of the public who attended these meetings said they’re happy to see a plan finally taking shape for the nearly 80-mile corridor, they still pushed for their preferred mode of transportation to be expanded to the entire length of the corridor.

The two main alternate ideas posed at these hearings were to rip up the rails south of Tupper Lake and extend the trail to Big Moose, which is mostly favored by snowmobilers and got wide support at all three meetings; wanting to rehabilitate the rails north of Tupper Lake and extend train service to Lake Placid, which is mostly favored by train-advocates and had a few supporters speak at each meeting. A third option was to extend railroad service to Saranac Lake, with a trail to Lake Placid, which was supported by a couple from Saranac Lake at the Tupper Lake meeting.

DEC Regional Director Bob Steggeman said the state will be reviewing all the comments it receives, but that the plan presented at the meetings is believed by the DEC and DOT to be the best compromise, the best for the region’s economy and the best for its communities.

Steggeman said the plan was already drawn up from the public’s suggestions. After the Lake Placid meeting he said the proposed UMP is “most reflective of all the comments we’ve been hearing,” and that “tonight was one more iteration of those.”

It seems unlikely that any of the more drastic changes to the plan suggested at the meetings, which made up most of the public comment, will be adopted.

“This is not a referendum,” Winchell said at the Old Forge meeting.

Less drastic ideas

At the Lake Placid meeting, Pete Nelson of Keene said he does not think the state has recognized the rail-trail as being a big deal. He said the DEC should aspire to make it a national marketing push and added that he believes Tupper Lake will be an important transportation hub.

President of the New York State Snowmobile Association Rosanne Warner, at Thursday’s Old Forge meeting, asked the DOT to use concrete rail ties instead of creosote rail ties when refurbishing the tracks, for environmental reasons.

In Tupper Lake, where train riders would reach the end of the line and travelers to Lake Placid would take the first step (or pedal, or throttle) of their journey, station-adjacent resident Jan Yaworski requested a sound barrier for train noise and privacy built along the proposed parking lot.

Saranac Lake couple Keith and Doreen Gorgas both said they want the rail line to end in their town, with the 10-foot wide trail of compacted stone dust going to Lake Placid starting there.

The next steps for the current plan are to approve the UMP in spring 2020, start rail removal and rehabilitation then, to be done by fall 2020, and start trail construction in spring 2021 with the entire project to be completed in 2023.

Lake Placid

At the Lake Placid hearing some speakers who were at the Tupper Lake meeting the night before attended again.

Lindy Ellis, a Franklin County legislator and chair of the Saranac Lake Parks and Trails Advisory Board, again praised the compromise.

President of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club Jim McCulley spoke again but had different talking points. He questioned how the DEC and DOT thought the proposed plan was the best and said a cost-benefit analysis should be done.

Trail advocates at the Lake Placid and Old Forge meetings all were skeptical that trains will be able to bring in the funds needed to sustain the tracks, as the train companies have not been able to maintain the tracks in recent years. Many said they believe that the trains will eventually shut down and the rails will be ripped up anyway.

Saranac Lake village board trustee Rich Shapiro said he thinks a train is a “waste of money.”

In Lake Placid train advocate Jonathan Driller said he thinks the rail is what is best for the region. He said while trains can generate revenue to support maintenance, the trail will have to be fully funded by the taxpayers.

He also called for a study of both options to be done before anything is done to the rails.

Driller doubted the trail will be a big tourism opportunity, saying that tourists come for the mountains and that a crushed stone path satisfies neither mountain nor road bikers.

He questioned if snowmobilers will stay and eat at least overnight like he said train riders would.

“We don’t know,” Driller said.

Simultaneously, a voice in the crowd said, “Yeah we do.”

“No offense to Tupper, but it will take a lot to make it the tourist economic hub that Lake Placid is now,” Driller said. “People will continue to be drawn to the little city nearest the High Peaks and Tupper will likely benefit much more throughout the year with the scenic, fun connection to its attractions from Placid through Saranac Lake by rail.”

Steve Urquhart, a trail advocate said the free market killed train travel, and that the trail is the best option for the future.

“This nostalgia, if it sells so well, let’s just go back to a horse and buggy trail.” Urquhart said. “You can’t turn back time. Do you want to use historical medicines when you’re sick?”

Old Forge

The Old Forge hearing had strong snowmobile showing based on its speakers and clap volume.

Speakers there focused on the cost of rail rehabilitation, which they said would use lots of taxpayer dollars. Many snowmobilers there said they want to be able to drive up to Tupper Lake, and further.

Winchell addressed a concern that pulling up rails will change the use qualifications for sections of the corridor, meaning snowmobiles would not be able to be driven on it. He said since it is classified as a travel corridor, and that is not changing, the use qualifications of the adjacent land does not impact the corridor.

Joe Mercurio, the president of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates spoke last at the Lake Placid hearing. He said he is 81 years old and hopes to be able to get on the trail riding a bike rather than a wheelchair.

Another hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 19 in Utica.

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