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DOT, ASR let corridor crumble

Wetland takes over a section of train tracks on the state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. (Photo provided by Jim McCulley)

It’s been said that it is hard to imagine a worse or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong. The current management of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor is proof of this remark.

Anyone that has watched the actions of the New York State Department of Transportation rail division on this issue would have to agree. NYSDOT rail has entrusted the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to mitigate developing problems and has done little to no oversight of the ASR maintenance operations. Without oversight, this seems to have become the game of, “If we can’t have it, no one will.” The combination of groupthink in the rail division, that is seemingly more worried about holding on to turf no matter the cost, and the ASR’s need for cash has led to the deterioration of the corridor at a rapid rate.

Up until 2010, DOT employees were trained and maintained the corridor. DOT employee Craig LaPlante said one day they were just notified they were no longer going to maintain the corridor. At this point, NYSDOT rail division created a system where the ASR is considered the “contractor” on the corridor, but no contracts go up for bid. And to sidestep their own rules on the bidding process, they call their payments to the ASR grants.

The washouts on the corridor are too numerous to mention. The spring washout at Hoel Pond is just the tip of the iceberg. Talking with the ASR maintenance supervisor last fall, he told me about the issue at Hoel Pond last fall and did little to nothing about the issue.

Also, last fall emergency funds had to be expended on two large washouts between Beaver River and Sabattis. Mitchell contracting (Paul J. Mitchell Logging and Mitchell Stone Products) from Tupper Lake was brought in to do the work. These blocked culverts were reported to the NYSDOT corridor manager in 2017, before the washout occurred, by BRASS (a snowmobile club based in Beaver River); they offered to fix the issue free of charge before it was washed out. These overtures were rebuffed, and they were told the ASR is the contractor on the corridor, has a “draw account,” and they will take care of it. (Editor’s note: BRASS trail coordinator and Beaver River resident Scott Thompson confirmed these accounts.) They didn’t want it washed away, and there are numerous other locations where this is happening. At the Route 86 crossing into the village of Saranac Lake, there is a 16-foot-wide washout the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club had to bridge last year. We also had to remove the dam and open culverts. We did this free of charge and would have continued if the permit we received had not expired on Dec. 31, 2018.

Wetland takes over a section of train tracks on the state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. (Photo provided by Jim McCulley)

This year the beavers have flooded this area once again, and since May we started reporting the issue to the New York State Snowmobile Association, which contacted DOT. This has been the procedure for the last 10 years, and DOT said it would have the ASR check on the issues. No work came until I sent pictures of cattails growing in the middle of the tracks to (state Senator) Betty Little’s office, and finally they sent someone in late August to remove the dam. Of course, as soon as they remove it, the beavers dam it again. After we sent the pictures to Betty Little’s office, the DOT in Albany sent word they would have us arrested for walking on the corridor. We all know more people walk that corridor in a day than take the train in a month. But instead of doing their job. threats were their response. I recently received pictures of another large washout east of Tupper Lake. Just so everyone understands, the ASR is being PAID to do this maintenance; it is not free by volunteers, as they claim. This is either intentional or gross incompetence; either way, the ASR should not be rewarded by DOT with payment for the repair work they created by not doing their job in the first place.

Our five-year request for the Lake Colby causeway to be repaired, because of the danger to snowmobiles and the groomer operators and our equipment, falls on deaf ears at the DOT, seemingly intentionally to create a hazard and/or an accident. The response I have received is that “the ASR says it’s just one small spot.” Since no one at the DOT or the ASR has ever driven or ridden in a groomer on the corridor, their assessment is worthless, and if they would respond to my request through Betty Little’s office for a site visit, I could show them. We are not the only club with these issues. All along the corridor, NYSSA and the clubs that maintain it for winter recreation and the economic engine that snowmobiling is to the rural Adirondacks are thwarted in their attempts to provide a safe, usable trail by the lack of responsiveness of the DOT and their contractor. Danger to our groomer operators and our equipment are numerous, yet we are fought by the DOT bureaucracy that ignores the evidence that their contractor is not giving them the full scope of the issues on the corridor.

The upcoming unit management plan that will create the trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake should also require NYSDOT to find a competent rail operator before one dime is spent rehabilitating the tracks from Big Moose to Tupper Lake. The current DOT rail division seems to have a personnel stake in continuing this operation. An outside analysis is needed, restoring sanity to this debate instead of having people who suffer no consequences for being wrong make the decisions. The next $17 million will make over $34 million of tax dollars spent over the last 25 years. This is not for transportation; this is so DOT can hold on to the turf. There is no call for rail transport in the Adirondacks, scenic or otherwise. And the current operator is incapable of either maintaining it or operating on the corridor. The recent Trip Advisor reviews from the Utica operations tell the story: trains broken down for hours in the woods, brake issues that should give the public pause before boarding, and terrible customer service. It’s time to pause all rail spending, remove the tracks from Tupper to Lake Placid, and then do a cost-benefit analysis on the trail to determine the best future use of the corridor.

Jim McCulley lives in Lake Placid and has been a leader of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club and Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.

A section of train tracks is washed out on the state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. (Photo provided by Jim McCulley)

The causeway beneath train tracks is washed out at Lake Colby on the state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. (Photo provided by Jim McCulley)