Rail trail success will be largely up to villages

Like it or not, the state has decided to take out the tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and use the state-owned travel corridor as a path for bike riders, pedestrians, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. A lawsuit stands in the way, but still, state officials are planning out the details with an advisory group. The Tri-Lakes villages need to get planning for the big change as well.

It’s still controversial – sadly, a two-year public deciding process didn’t bring sides closer together – and it’s still an open question whether the trail or the railroad will do more to enhance the area, both in terms of economic impact and quality of life. Ultimately, we think it comes down to what people here make of it.

Saranac Lake village officials are trying to make the most of it, and we commend them for that.

They already had a plan to make the village more bicycle friendly, and now they’re adapting that to the proposed “rail trail.” They want people on the path to know what the village has to offer and to be able to ride to those places easily.

Village Trustee Rich Shapiro, who represents the village on the rail trail advisory board, compared the corridor to a “controlled-access interstate highway” for riders. The points at which the tracks meet village streets could be seen as exits, and at them, we’ll need signs to public attractions and individual businesses.

We’ll also need the streets that connect the rail trail to be safe to bike on – and ideally to snowmobile on as well, although that’s trickier because we still have to plow our roads.

First we’ll take it from a tourism standpoint. If the tracks became a trail tomorrow, people riding into Saranac Lake from Lake Placid would miss most of what the village has to offer, despite it being so close. They’d ride by Brandy Brook Avenue and not see Lake Flower, the village’s scenic centerpiece, a block away. They wouldn’t see downtown or almost any shops, except those on Broadway near Cedar and Van Buren. Good, simple, consistent signage at these exit points would help people find their way to the places they would want to visit.

Then, if people follow the signs and leave the rail trail, they need to safely reach their destination. If it’s a scary ride, they won’t come back. Streets should have bike lanes when possible and share-the-lane “sharrow” markings otherwise. Some of this is already in place.

Meanwhile, Saranac Lake residents will use the rail trail for exercise or leisure, to bike to work in Lake Placid or Ray Brook, or to get around town – maybe to class at North Country Community College, to shop at the supermarkets, or to Adirondack Medical Center, the region’s largest private employer and a place local people have to go all the time. It could be a well-used transit corridor, but again, that largely will depend on how easily people can get to the corridor on bikes, on foot or on snowmobiles.

People who are used to riding bikes in traffic will not be deterred, but most people are not up for dodging cars and trucks, looking over their shoulder out of fear of getting creamed. The rail trail would be great for these people – families with kids, for instance – but are they going to drive across town to it? Not that many people have bike racks on their cars, especially for holding multiple bikes.

The bottom line is, if it’s easy to get to and from the rail trail, many people will use it, and if it isn’t, few will. It comes down to good design, and on the part of the village, not the state.

That’s why village officials like Mr. Shapiro and Community Development Director Jeremy Evans are working out plans of how we can make the most of this this rail trail. We hope their counterparts in Tupper Lake and Lake Placid are doing the same, and we hope they’re sharing their ideas and plans.

That, by the way, is another reason why it makes no sense for the rail trail advisory group to shut the public out from its meetings. Community members need to know what’s coming so they can get planning.

Debate has raged in recent years about whether a train or a trail was a better use for this state-owned corridor. Both had their pros and cons. A strong argument can be made that the solid number of tourists brought in by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and Rail Explorers outweighs the unknown number the trail will bring. In terms of economic impact, the trail is a big question mark.

But in the trail’s favor, economic development isn’t just about attracting tourists. It’s also about attracting new residents. While Lake Placid is largely a tourist town, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake are residential communities, primarily geared toward their own people. But those who visit there, especially if they get to know local people, have a chance to see the quality of life. They can’t grasp all of it on one visit, so they come back, again and again, acting more like a local each time. Eventually, some of them move to the place they love to be. We’ve seen that story play out countless times.

Multi-use trails add to the quality of life, leaving people healthier and maybe taking a few cars off roads and out of parking spaces. Potential new residents would notice the rail trail. In that sense, it’s potentially valuable and worth getting right.