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Essex County asks Warren County to hold off on abandoning railroad from Saratoga

A Saratoga & North Creek Railway locomotive sits unused in North Creek in September 2017. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Essex County supervisors are asking their counterparts in Warren County to hold off on asking the federal government to declare Warren County’s rail line “abandoned,” saying more effort should be put into finding a company to use the tracks to move freight.

Essex County’s Board of Supervisors sent a letter to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board last month opposing the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s application to the STB to declare the Sanford Lake Branch of rails in Essex and Hamilton counties “abandoned.” County supervisors sent a similar letter in 2018 as well.

The state made the abandonment request in August 2018, and the STB has been taking comments from interested parties in the months since. The branch’s owner, Saratoga & North Creek Railway, has joined in the request for abandonment.

The Sanford Lake Branch is north of a stretch of rails that Warren County owns, between Hadley and North Creek. With negotiations breaking down for a new rail operator on the line last fall, Warren County supervisors passed a resolution last month to begin the process to declare its stretch of rails “abandoned” as many push for conversion of the rails to a recreational trail.

That decision could leave the rails in Essex and Hamilton counties landlocked, since the only way for a train to get to them is through Warren County.

Warren County’s action was motivated in part by the fact that the county has to spend an estimated $300,000 a year to maintain the rail line, with no prospect of any rail operator who wants to run trains on it.

Since the line in Essex County is privately owned by SNCR, Essex County does not have those expenses.

SNCR has walked away from the Sanford Lake Branch, and much of it is in need of significant repairs and maintenance, having sat unused for years.

Willsboro Supervisor Shaun Gillilland, chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, said Warren County’s decision left its neighbors “high and dry” and was rushed without enough discussions with Essex County.

“All we are asking them to do is hold it in abeyance and work with us on it,” Gillilland said.

Gillilland said Horicon Supervisor Matthew Simpson has reached out to Essex County leaders to indicate that Warren County officials will try to work with their counterparts in Essex County, but there was little interest in Warren County.

Simpson said Wednesday that Warren County leaders ultimately have to do what’s best for Warren County taxpayers.

Warren County Administrator Ryan Moore said Warren County leaders met with Essex County supervisors on two occasions last fall to explain the county’s position, and discussed how abandonment could help locate a rail carrier to use the line for freight, as it could free up funding if a need is shown.

“We’re following a strategy that provides a way forward to any possible use of the corridor that makes sure the best outcome wins out,” Moore said. “I’m confident in the deliberate process we have followed.”

Gillilland, though, said abandonment is clearly the first step to ending rail operations.

“Once you abandon it, you’re done, it will never come back,” he said.

There is no timetable for the STB decision on the Sanford Lake Branch. Revolution Rail Co., which operates a rail biking business on the SNCR-owned rail line in North River, on Tuesday asked the STB for a “certificate of interim trail use” to continue its operations while the abandonment process is ongoing.

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