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Commentary on the APA decision

The May 14 decision by the Adirondack Park Agency to approve the so-called compromise plan for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor was not a surprise. This has been the only option allowed on the table since the Cuomo administration decreed it, and everything since has been stacking the deck to make it happen. 

If not for outside events like the 9/11 attack and a recession, restoring rail service all the way to Lake Placid would have been funded years ago. The Department of Environmental Conservation was supposed to be developing trails even as the rails were being restored. They did nothing — and here we are.

Where the 1996 plan drew on all stakeholders as equals and considered the corridor as a whole, the 2016 plan arbitrarily split off the Tri-Lakes into a separate fiefdom under the exclusive control of DEC. It ignored the consequences for the rest of the line and the communities along it to cater to the local interests behind the trail-only plan. Rail stakeholders were ignored, including the thousands of visitors who rode the trains and the rail bikes in the Tri-Lakes.

The lawsuit by the Adirondack Rail Preservation Society revealed serious flaws in the 2016 plan, despite state claims that everything was fine — just as they now claim about the revised plan. The 2020 version still rests on flawed assumptions and excludes critical facts. Listening to the DEC presentation and the discussion during the APA board meeting made three things very clear.

¯ First: There was never any thought of reconsidering the plan, despite the flaws confirmed by Justice Main’s ruling. Although hundreds of comments were submitted — again — the DEC representative admitted DEC threw out those it deemed outside the scope of the plan. (The words “arbitrary and capricious” come to mind.)

It was (finally!) admitted at the meeting that the 2016 plan was flawed and had needed changes — but changes were made to fit the law to the plan instead. Some concessions were made regarding the railroad, easements and historic preservation concerns, but only under duress.

¯ Second: DEC and the APA continue to ignore the potential of the corridor as a railroad and the difference it could make to the entire Adirondacks if fully realized. Only three priorities seem to concern APA: 1) boosting tourism, with snowmobilers as first among equals, 2) managing access by train to the Whitney Wilderness to avoid negative impact, and 3) not getting sued again.

The regional economy is dangerously dependent on tourism — this makes it more so. It’s going to be problematic this summer. It’s not just fear of the pandemic that will keep tourists away; it’s the millions of people who have lost income and will stay home. Businesses will have to make big changes for reasons of health. Government will have to adjust, too.

As long as DEC and the APA only see the line as a seasonal tourist attraction, they are deliberately ignoring all the ways the railroad could support economic activity that goes beyond tourism. This is a time of increasing disruption; preserving options will be critical. As to that …

¯ Third: Neither DEC nor the APA are taking climate change seriously. This is a huge deficiency in the whole planning process. There had been no official mention of it anywhere until this latest go-around, and that only about concerns over snowmobile emissions. They admitted they’re still not sure how they will monitor them — they’ll “learn by doing.”

Nowhere was there any acknowledgement that climate change is going to mean increasingly undependable snowfall or more frequent severe weather events like the 2019 Halloween deluge. Removing the rails for a temporary benefit is shortsighted; it’s like getting rid of lifeboats to make room for more deck chairs on the Titanic.

Snowmobilers have hundreds of miles of trails in the Park; there’s only one rail corridor left that connects Lake Placid and the rest of the park to the outside world. Removing the rails won’t bring back the snow or reverse the decline in snowmobile registrations.

The really telling remark was the one that justified spending millions of dollars to rip out the rails despite the cost to the economy, history and the environment. Why? “Because the snowmobilers deserve a few more weeks of corridor use.” That open statement of entitlement is saying the quiet part out loud.

Give sole dissenter APA board member Chad Dawson credit for bringing up New York’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which calls for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and economy-wide, net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The board consensus seems to be: Rush the trail plan through before the act can prevent it.

A third of the emissions in the state come from transportation. Railroads move goods and people with a fraction of the energy needed to move them over highways, Switching to rail could cut emissions significantly just with current technology. It would be relatively easy to go further and make the line carbon-free. If that’s not grounds for a lawsuit blocking removal of the rails, it should be.

The rails could be restored to Tupper Lake as soon as 2021; the additional work to restore service all the way to Lake Placid wouldn’t take much longer or cost that much more.

The compromise plan appears to be driven more by immediate business and political concerns than it is by regard for the long-term public interest — and it’s the long term both DEC and the APA should have as a priority.

Given the economic distress for the state from the pandemic, that’s a sufficient reason to hold off rushing the trail plan through. Priorities are going to change; there’s no choice. Let’s see what the new world we’re going to be living in looks like before we do something we’re going to regret.

Larry Roth lives in Ravena.

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