Phase 1 of rail trail officially open
SARANAC LAKE — The 10-mile stretch of the Adirondack Rail Trail between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake is officially open to the public, just in time for the snowmobile and cross-country skiing season.
On Friday, a contingent of state officials, employees, trail advocates, snowmobilers and media met at Fowler’s Crossing, where the trail crosses state Route 86 just outside of Saranac Lake, to cut the ribbon on the first phase of the trail.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos joked that the gathering was “way above carrying capacity” and potentially in violation of the Adirondack Park Agency group size laws. There were more than 80 people on the trail and cars filled the two new parking lots on either side of state Route 86 and spilled out down the sides of the road.
Seggos said this was a significant milestone for the ADA accessible 34-mile Adirondack Rail Trail connecting Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.
Construction of the second phase — from Saranac Lake to Floodwood Road in Santa Clara — is on track to be complete by the fall of 2024, DEC Region 5 Regional Director Joseph Zalewski said. The third phase — from Floodwood to Tupper Lake — is scheduled to be finished in 2025.
Construction on Phase 2 has paused for the winter to allow for snowmobiles and winter use. Snowmobile access through the entire 34-mile Adirondack Rail Trail begins on Dec. 10.
The DEC has been asking the public to stay off sections of the trail with active construction since it started three years ago, but the public’s been using it anyway. For the most part, they’re just taking their own risks, but the use has also caused construction disruptions and some close calls.
“I can tell you, the contractors had one heck of a time keeping the public off this trail during construction,” Zalewski said.
As the state leaders gave their speeches on Friday, the last few illicit travelers strolled by.
This first phase of construction was carried out by Kubricky Construction from Saratoga County through a $7.9-million contract funded by NY Works, with an additional $225,000 supported by the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.
Years of work
“What a difference a year makes,” state Office of General Services Commissioner Jeanette Moy said, comparing the trail to what it looked like when she visited last November.
Seggos said it has taken more than a decade of preparation. He shouted out former DEC Commissioner Joe Martens in the crowd, who got the ball rolling on this project many years ago.
“Like a lot of things with Joe, Joe had this idea … and then he dropped the mic and retired and left the DEC,” Seggos said with a laugh.
He said it took a lot of work — lots of litigation, bureaucracy, budgeting, design and construction.
Assemblyman Matt Simpson, R-Horicon, said when his son attended Paul Smith’s College around seven years ago he started spending time at Charlie’s Inn in Lake Clear, where owner John Brockway was a big advocate for the rail trail.
“I had to listen to that … every weekend … for four years,” Simpson said.
He wasn’t even in the state legislature yet. Now, he said he sees why.
Simpson’s 114th Assembly District no longer includes the town of North Elba, where Friday’s ceremony took place. North Elba is now represented by Billy Jones in the 115th Assembly District.
Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, told the crowd there was what he called “a little chatter” back in the day about the rail trail, cheekily referring to the years of heated debate over what should be done with the now-former rail corridor.
Prior to the rail trail, the section from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake was used by the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society to run a scenic tourist train.
It took lots of compromise, he said, but everyone involved loves the Adirondacks and know they need tourism in the area to keep the economy sustainable.
State Sen. Dan Stec said this not a “slam dunk” decision everyone was happy with from the start. There was a lot of conflict and discussion, but the process bore out the present trail, which people seem happy with, he said.
Everyone was not thrilled, but compromise made for the best decision, he believes. Now its time to find out if that decision works, he added.
State Department of Transportation Assistant Commissioner Janet Ho said the project breathed new life into an old rail line. She said the DOT is planning to install road crossing signage in the future, as well as installing passenger rail platforms on the train depots in Tupper Lake and Sabbatis.
The Belvedere Restaurant
Two miles down the trail, in the heart of the village of Saranac Lake, Chrissie Wais, a co-owner of the Belvedere Restaurant located directly off the rail trail, has started a petition for the state to reverse its decision to put up a fence along a portion of the trail the restaurant backs up to.
She said they had been looking forward to the traffic the rail trail would bring in to their business, but over the summer, were surprised when the DEC installed a fence blocking direct access to their property.
Seggos said the DEC’s first concern is public safety. There are steep slopes on the sides of the trail in that area as the rail bed was raised, and if they’re putting the public on that trail, they want it to not be dangerous.
He said DEC officials have spoken with the Belvedere owners, heard their concerns and are exploring the possibility of yet another compromise. What that would be exactly, he’s not sure yet.
In Wais’ petition on change.org, which can be found at tinyurl.com/4pneyyf4, she said their initial request was denied, and the fence is currently in place.
Since the petition went live on Nov. 22, it had gathered 931 signatures as of Friday afternoon.
Future trail use
As the trail opens to the public, Seggos said to keep the trail clean and usable, the public will need to know how to treat it right — not littering, not vandalizing and not doing anything to destroy the trail.
The state will install trash cans and portable toilets in high-use areas, and it will be on the public to use them properly.
Seggos said the DEC has a “high degree of confidence” in the public.
The DEC also recently designated the Adirondack Rail Trail Association as an official friends group for the rail trail, allowing ARTA to share stewardship and management responsibilities with the state.
As the Adirondacks prepares for a total solar eclipse to pass over on April 8, 2024 — an event that has the potential to bring unprecedented crowds into the state park for the rare sight — Seggos said the DEC will be educating visitors on how best to see the celestial event without harming the Earth.
The timing has the potential for being in mud season.
Seggos said the rail trail provides safe access to the backcountry and speculated it might be a great place for people to congregate for the eclipse. There’s 10 miles of trail with many views of the sky there, he pointed out.
Winter use will include snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fat-tire biking.