What if?

Within the last week, Saranac Lake village officials have reached out to our community seeking ideas to include in an application for a grant to help revitalize our downtown. That caused me to think about what could be and what is needed to keep Saranac Lake, one of the best small communities in these United States. We have unparalleled natural resources, surrounded by lakes and mountains, miles and miles of recreational trails, and a charming and historic downtown center. We have arts, music, restaurants and cafes. What is lacking that could make it better?

We also have competing ideologies that have led to the recent loss of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and the very popular Rail Explorers Inc. Between the two concerns, almost 40 jobs have chased from Saranac Lake. A significant number of our downtown shops are now empty, stores that were bustling until a few years ago. I hope the opening of the restored Hotel Saranac will provide a strong boost to the downtown area, but New York state’s plan to remove the railroad tracks from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid, replacing it with yet another recreational trail, in my opinion, will result in a permanent loss of potential business. Last year, acting Judge Robert Main ruled the state’s plan was illegal on all counts. Presently, the state has filed a motion to appeal, but no perfected appeal has been submitted. The last thing Saranac Lake needs is the stranglehold of years more fighting back and forth, with nothing done within the rail travel corridor.

I start with a question: What if the appeal by New York state of Judge Main’s ruling confirms that what the agencies did was illegal? Are we to resume years of back-and-forth debates, petition upon petition, more rounds of public hearings and mailboxes full of letters to the editor pleading both sides of this controversy?

Is there another, better way to proceed?

I think that village, town and county elected officials can take the lead in bringing about a harmonious solution. Good compromises create a workable solution for the greatest common good. Hopefully a true spirt of compromise and statesmanship will prevail.

The 1996 unit management plan was forged by about 53 people working together. Roughly half were from state agencies: the Adirondack Park Agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Transportation. The remainder were community members representing a wide array of interests. Skiers, snowmobilers, environmentalists, economists, railroad enthusiasts, tourism experts, scientists, educators, civil engineers and others developed this plan, and it won overwhelming support when presented. And work commenced with vigor and enthusiasm. The bridges, culverts and trestles were all fixed; volunteers from the railroad cleared the entire length of the right of way. Grant money and donations helped renovate and rebuild all the stations, and tourist service started on both ends of the rail corridor. Seeing the progress and vitality, then-Gov. Pataki committed the money to extend rail restoration between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. A change in administration and economic downturn diverted that money away from the project, and since that time, for whatever reason, New York state has flat-out dropped the ball on the project, to the detriment of all of us here in the Tri-Lakes.

Why not make it possible for representatives from the competing interests to sit down at a table and work out a compromise? Since Lake Placid community leaders and merchants have said no to a passenger rail service, perhaps a solution would be to remove the tracks between there and Saranac Lake and build a beautiful trail for bikes, wheelchairs, roller blades and skiers. Most of the underlying land in that section belongs to the state, with only a few privately owned segments in Ray Brook with easements. Unlike other proposals, this section would likely not require a lengthy and expensive condemnation process to take the land via eminent domain. It would provide a roughly 20-mile round trip “world class” bike lane and snowmobile trail from either direction. During high intensity events in Lake Placid it could be a high-occupancy vehicle lane to diminish traffic congestion that sometimes occurs on New York 86.

If rail service, connecting with Amtrak in Utica, were restored to Saranac Lake, those who wished to continue on to hotels in Lake Placid could be served by a shuttle bus system. A viable pedestrian use trail system was designed from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake with considerable input from the DEC Region 5 staff. Nobody’s going to ride a wheelchair or rollerblades back and forth over that area, but bikers, skiers and snowmobilers would all be able to share the 100-foot-wide right of way with the trains. The skill and intelligence exist to resolve the problem areas that require creative solutions.

Claiming that APA regulations or DEC regulations prohibit rail and trail working together is nonsense. It was the APA and DEC that approved the 1996 UMP after much study and consideration.

The removal of the rails would permanently and forever sever any potential connection between Saranac Lake and the America’s rail network. The rest of the world is investing heavily in passenger rail transportation as a low carbon footprint means of mass transportation. In the past 20 years, U.S. rail passenger use has increased substantially. This trend is seen not only in urban and suburban areas but in rural regions as well. Vermont has committed to restoring passenger service from north to south ends of the state. Nationwide, rural destinations are working toward restored and revived green transportation as smart growth policies are implemented.

Numerous studies have concluded that millennials, with a confirmed desire to limit global climate change, have shown a marked preference for mixed modal mass transportation. Many urban dwellers, with discretionary income to spend on travel and vacations, have chosen to live and function without automobiles. Only those destinations in reach of mass transit will benefit from their tourist dollars. Likewise, Europeans and other visitors come to the United States accustomed to traveling by rail in their homelands. Their considerable money is invested into the communities that they can reach without a car.

Isn’t it time to work together for our common good? Isn’t it time our community again works together to deserve the designations we earned as an All-America City and one of the “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation?

Keith Gorgas lives in Saranac Lake.