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5. Full steam ahead: Rail-trail debate accelerates

December 30, 2011
By CHRIS MORRIS - Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

The debate over the best use of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor reached a fever pitch this year.

This summer, the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates formed in order to rally Tri-Lakes- area residents around their cause: To remove the rails between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake in favor of a multi-use recreational trail.

The group has forged a partnership with Parks and Trails New York, a statewide nonprofit organization, and is now able to accept tax-deductible contributions. As of December, ARTA had close to 1,300 members. Members of the group's steering committee championed their cause before elected officials in Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, and hosted well-attended meetings in Lake Placid and Tupper Lake that featured a representative from the National Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Article Photos

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad train stops at the Tupper Lake Train Depot Nov. 5 as it makes its way back to Utica for the winter.
(Enterprise file photo — Jessica Collier)

But trail advocates aren't the only ones who gained momentum.

Supporters of scenic railroad operations have become increasingly vocal. In Tupper Lake, the Next Stop Tupper Lake group has redoubled its commitment to bringing the Adirondack Scenic Railroad there, and now they're also pushing to build a trail alongside the tracks, at least from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid. In November, a large crowd gathered at Tupper Lake's rebuilt train depot as railroad officials ceremonially replaced the first tie along the tracks to Saranac Lake.

Railroad enthusiasts also picked up strong support on the state and federal levels in 2011. In August, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced an additional $1.2 million for the North Elba Pathway Project, which aims to build a recreational trail alongside the railroad. The town of North Elba now has more than $3 million in funding, enough to work on both halves of the trail at the same time. One half runs from the village of Lake Placid to Ray Brook; the other runs from Ray Brook to the village of Saranac Lake.

On the state level, the new North Country Regional Economic Development Council included the rehabilitation of the Remsen-Lake Placid line in its strategic plan.

Meanwhile, trail advocates continue to argue that scenic railroad operations have failed from an economic standpoint and that a multi-use trail would be an economic boon. ARTA members say successful rail-to-trail conversion projects in places like western New York and Pennsylvania show that one could have a similar impact on business in the Adirondacks.

Much of this year's debate was framed by a Camoin Associates study commissioned by AdkAction, an advocacy group that has studied issues pertaining to both the environment and the economy in the Adirondack Park (AdkAction leader Lee Keet helped start ARTA). At its core, the study found that three options - upgrading the railroad to accommodate for higher speeds, permanently converting the corridor to a trail and temporarily converting it to a trail - would lead to a positive economic benefit for the Tri-Lakes region. All three would be costly, ranging from $10.6 million for railroad upgrades to $18.8 million for a temporary conversion, according to the study.

But those numbers have been disputed by both sides, and some onlookers questioned why the study didn't allow for a recreational path next to the railroad. ARTA members say that would be impossible fiscally and permit-wise.

The debate over the railroad has also brought together unlikely allies, like Jim McCulley and Tony Goodwin. For years, McCulley, an avid snowmobiler from Lake Placid, was at odds with Tony Goodwin, a Keene resident who heads the Adirondack Ski Touring Council, over motorized access to Old Mountain Road. Now the two men stand together in their push for the railroad to be removed.

While many people are polarized over the best use of the corridor, one thing is for certain: People care, and they aren't afraid to share the opinion.

In 2011 alone, the Enterprise published at least 82 letters to the editor on the railroad versus recreational trail topics. Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley said the subject is one of the most hot-button issues in the Tri-Lakes area since he became editor in 2004.

"It's hard for me to think of a subject that's generated more letters and commentaries," he said, "maybe when Walmart wanted to come to Saranac Lake and that divided the community. But even with that, I'm not sure that we had that many actual letters.

"Because there's relatively little news on this subject, it's really been driven by readers who write these letters," he added, "and the Enterprise opinion page is really the place where this issue is playing out."



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