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Rail trail is last thing state should build

The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates have been pushing the idea that rail trail construction should start as soon as possible. DEC has said it could start in November 2016 after seasonal rail operations end, but Lee Keet of ARTA said in an April 1 Albany Times Union article, “We would like to see this clock start ticking (so) the tracks can start coming up this summer.” It’s no secret ARTA wants to build the trail in the worst way – and that’s exactly what this would be.

Consider this: After one of the worst winter tourism seasons on record, Mr. Keet is calling for a major construction project right through the Tri-Lakes at the height of the summer tourist season! This disruption would be bad enough by itself, but it would also come with the loss of all the business and jobs generated by both the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and the Rail Explorers. The last thing the area needs now is another sucker punch to the economy on top of what the weather has done. But that’s not all.

Remember, the state Adirondack Park Agency only ruled that the rail trail plan is compatible with the State Land Master Plan – but that’s just the start. The trail still has to be designed. No one yet knows how wide the trail will be, will it be one or two lanes, what kind of surface it will have – or who will really have control of it or pay for it. (It’s going to be a training/event facility for the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, among other things.)

This also means no one knows how much the trail is really going to cost, what it will really look like – and DEC’s own plan admits building it out will take years. The last thing DEC should do is rush into it. The plans call for local input, after all. ARTA and DEC should allow enough time to do it right.

This should really call into question whether ARTA has the good of the area at heart, and just why Mr. Keet is in such a hurry. (Growing opposition to the rail trail, perhaps?) It doesn’t mean a halt to everything, though. The state can still go forward with the part of the plan that will cause NO disruption: Let the state Department of Transportation restore the tracks to Tupper Lake first, and see what happens.

That, after all, fits in with the 1996 plan, already approved but never carried out by the state – and it’s part of the so-called compromise in any case. Rail work can begin as soon as weather permits and can probably be completed this season. It would not prevent regular rail operations OR disrupt the towns in the area. There’s nothing new to build, no surprises – and the costs are well understood.

Although DOT will be in charge of that section, DEC has trail development planned for it. DEC should prove it CAN work with the rail line – something it has failed to do for the past 20 years. We saw what happened to the corridor before the Adirondack Scenic Railroad came along. Counting on the state to preserve the line until they get around to restoring it on their timetable is a fool’s hope. Do it first.

Remember, the state’s own economic justifications turn on bringing back full passenger service all the way from Utica to Tupper Lake, not just on building the rail trail. This will be a good test with the least risk for everyone. The state’s plan presumes a line running only to Tupper Lake will still attract commercial bids for operation; this is how to prove it.

If, as rail supporters believe with good reason, rail service really needs to run all the way to Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, let’s find out before any tracks are ripped up. Several seasons of service to Tupper Lake along with current Tri-Lakes operations would be a good test. (Don’t forget the Rail Explorers, either!)

It just might turn out that restoring the entire rail line is the real best use once solid cost estimates for the trail are available and people know what it will really be like. The state is planning on $11 million to bring tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake up to Class 2 standards (30 mph maximum for passenger trains) and another $8 million to $10 million to build the rail trail – guessing at trail costs.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad had an engineering study done. It estimates $22 million – about what the state already plans to spend – would be enough to upgrade even more of the line, from Thendara to Lake Placid, to Class 3 standards. That means train speeds would be limited only by curves! Given that, a train trip to Lake Placid from Utica’s Amtrak-Thruway connections looks like even more of a tourism draw. For about the same amount of money as the “compromise” plan, that would change everything.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Keet is apparently not willing to risk that possibility. ARTA still wants the tracks removed all the way back to Thendara, compromise be damned. Given that a) support for keeping the rails is growing, b) the serious questions recently raised about APA’s decision-making process, c) the possibility of a joint Olympic bid with Quebec, and d) the economic potential of a fully restored rail line, the wisest course all around would be to hold off on the rail trail for now but go ahead with the rest of the plan.

In this case, haste really would make waste. The area has survived without a rail trail for over a hundred years, after all. A little longer won’t hurt. The last thing Mr. Keet should want is to have DEC rush through a badly designed, hastily built trail just to pre-empt legitimate concerns. If DEC and ARTA really have the best interests of the region at heart, this is the way to go.

Larry Roth lives in Ravena, south of Albany.

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