In the News  Archive

Controversial plan for Adirondack rail corridor picks up steam

North Country Public Radio
July 09, 2015

by Brian Mann, in Tupper Lake, NY

Click HERE to listen to story.

July 09, 2015 — New York State officials held a public hearing last night in Tupper Lake, N.Y., to take comments on a new plan that would divide one of the Adirondack Park's most historic rail corridors.

The section of track in the Tri-Lakes region would be torn up and converted into a multi-use "rail-trail," and the tracks and ties west of Tupper Lake would be restored. The proposal remains controversial, but seems to be winning support.

Keeping it civil as support grows

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Dave Winchell set the tone for the session when he acknowledged this debate has been fierce and fiery, but insisted this public hearing not spin out of control. "We want to keep this from getting emotional. We want to keep it calm, we want to keep it civil," he said.

The forty or so people who spoke in the Tupper Lake middle school auditorium mostly did just that. If there was anything new from Wednesday’s session, it’s that the state’s proposal to divide the historic rail corridor into a train section and a rail-trail section seems to be winning people over. "Speaking from Tupper Lake, it is a win-win for us," said Tupper Lake town supervisor Patricia Littlefield. "We are thrilled, we are very happy to hear it. And we’re looking forward to having a little economic impact in Tupper Lake because of it.

Under this plan, the state would spend about $11 million to restore the tracks from the Remsen-Old Forge area to Tupper Lake. Another $7-9 million would be spent to build a new multi-use trail from Tupper to Lake Placid. Willie Janeway, head of the Adirondack Council green group, also endorsed the proposal and urged people to rally behind it. Janeway said, "Is there enough positive for all of us in this plan to celebrate that and come together and work to move this forward? I think there is. I hope we can do that."

The proposal also drew support from the New York State Snowmobile Association’s Dom Jacangelo. "NYSSA does support [this plan] in general, though we do have some concerns and questions," he said.

But tensions and big questions remain

Bill Branson, head of the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society, which operates the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, spoke in Tupper Lake Wednesday night. He called plans to tear up part of the tracks a mistake. Photo: Brian Mann

There is a sense that after decades of slow progress on the rail corridor, with most of the route unused most of the year, this plan could actually bring a big influx of state dollars and restore one of the Adirondacks’ most unique recreation areas. It might also end years of bitter argument between train and trail advocates. But tensions remain. Last night, Bill Branson, head of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s board of directors, acknowledged the train project is now deeply unpopular in parts of the Park. "We recognize that we’re not entirely welcome here," he said. Support for the railroad north and east of Tupper Lake has eroded, but Branson called the state’s proposal to tear up part of the track a mistake. “It will discriminate against the elderly, the unfit, the very young. It will create resentment.”

A number of people from the Tri-Lakes spoke in favor of maintaining train service over the entire route, including Amy Catania with Historic Saranac Lake, who said tearing up the tracks would destroy an important part of the Park’s legacy.

The Scenic railroad has struggled for years to realize its vision however, and never emerged as a major destination capable of carrying tourists from Utica all the way to Lake Placid. Again this summer, deteriorating rails meant a stoppage of service to Big Moose Lake and so far this season no trains have operated on the Lake Placid to Saranac Lake section.

Jim McCulley heads the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club and is a leader of the group called Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates that wants the entire corridor converted into a trail. He voiced skepticism that the train will ever bring a big and steady influx of tourists to Tupper Lake. McCulley said, "The one and longest trip that the Adirondack scenic railroad currently does is between Utica and Big Moose. It’s a nine and a half hour trip. They do that trip twenty days a year. How often are they really going to come to Tupper Lake? Ten days a year?"

This is one of the big questions going forward if this plan is approved. Can the Adirondack Scenic Railroad or some other train operator actually make a go of it and sell enough tickets to support a seasonal rail line even if taxpayers pick up most of the tab for restoring the rails? And what kind of boost would that operation bring to small towns along the tracks. Scott Thompson, an ARTA member from Beaver River, who along with his family owns a lodge there, said, "We don’t know how many days that train’s going to operate. There’s businesses now that have relied on the train coming to Big Moose."

Another big complaint from critics is that this proposal does not establish an open and track-free corridor for snowmobile riders that would connect the central and eastern Adirondacks to the sled-riding mecca of Old Forge and Inlet. Brian Vilett from the town of Peru said riding over the railroad tracks in winter is too risky for a lot of sledders. "The railroad tracks need to go," he insisted. "They’re just dangerous. They’re very bad."

State officials will hold a second public hearing to gather feedback from the public in Utica, at the western end of the rail line where the railroad remains more popular, on July 20 at 4pm. They will take public comments on the rail corridor through the end of the month.

The goal is to have a final new unit management plan in place by the end of the year.

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