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Debate should move beyond bitterness

You’d think $15 million worth of railroad upgrades would be a big enough spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, but the proverbial grapes have only gotten more sour among Adirondack train supporters.

Remember that old proverb about getting further with honey than vinegar? The Adirondack Scenic Railroad crowd is doubling down on vinegar. Of course, this is America, and they’re free to complain, or to sue. But in their fury, they sent a barrage of unfounded accusations out to a statewide audience, and that could haunt them.

Sadly, this kind of thing is not new in the Adirondack rail-trail debate that’s raged for the last five years – we’ve heard trail backers make dubious claims, too – but the quantity and timing of this latest batch of spite is newsworthy. The railroad company has undermined its credibility just as a judge considers its lawsuit against the state over a plan the governor signed off on this week.

The rail-trail debate is one of those truly divisive issues. Each side’s advocates act like it has a majority, but based on the public comment record and on what we’ve seen and heard at the crux of this debate, we’re pretty confident local opinion is split about 50-50 between those who want to keep the train and those who want to replace it with a multi-use path.

Seeing this, staff from the state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation drafted a plan in 2014 that would split the state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor into one section for trains and another for a trail. Tracks would be replaced with a multi-use trail on the 34 miles between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, and the railroad would be upgraded to allow 30 mph passenger train travel on the 45 miles from Tupper Lake to Big Moose. The tracks are already operational south of Big Moose, allowing the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to run tourist trips up from Utica.

It’s kind of like the compromise of King Solomon, who ordered that a baby two mothers were fighting over be cut in half. It’s scrupulously fair, but both sides disliked it.

But this is unlike Solomon’s proposal in that these half-babies are not dead. Each side gets some of what it wants, and the state gets to compare both options side by side. It’s not perfect, but we support it.

The governor also announced that New York taxpayers will fund this plan to the tune of $23 million – $15 million for better tracks and $8 million for the trail – and give the railroad a long-term lease instead of the one-month leases it’s had so far. (Editor’s note: A prior version of the previous sentence incorrectly said one-year instead of one-month leases.)

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad responded by throwing a tantrum.

Granted, some of its points are good – for instance, the legality of removing tracks of a railroad that’s on the state and national historic registers is an open question – but it didn’t stop there. A story in today’s Enterprise outlines unsourced claims and inaccuracies it issued in a long, angry press release Tuesday, the day of the governor’s announcement.

On Utica public radio Wednesday, railroad director Bethan Maher suggested trail supporters bribed Gov. Cuomo.

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

She did not give evidence for this conspiracy theory, which railroad supporters have iterated before, and which they have never been able to back up. When asked by the media, Ms. Maher and other railroad officials say investigating those claims is news reporters’ job. Reporters have looked into it and found nothing.

When the Enterprise asked railroad board President Bill Branson about the press release’s inaccuracies Friday, he got mad and accused the reporter of having an agenda. Yes, we have an agenda – to fact-check questionable claims made in public. And we have a bias, too – we tend to favor truth over falsehood.

Again, there is plenty of room for legitimate debate over how to use this publicly owned corridor, but it should be done in a civil manner with respect for fellow citizens and for the truth. This is not the end of the world, and we find it hard to argue the process was unfair. Following two years of heated debate, the state was right to revisit the corridor’s 1996 unit management plan, and it did so in a public process that lasted almost three years, with listening sessions, public hearings and public comment periods. The resulting proposal is an attempt at compromise.

The state is giving each side a chance to prove its idea, and like Solomon, state officials are probably watching their responses to see which is the more worthy.

If this group wants to continue as the chosen train contractor to lease the railroad in which taxpayers are investing $15 million, its people should act like responsible adults.