Village board votes 4-1 to re-examine rail plan

TUPPER LAKE – After an hour-and-a-half of comments from an audience split fairly evenly between rail and trail supporters, the village board voted 4-1 in favor of a resolution that asks the state to reopen the unit management plan for the rail corridor.

In so doing, the village board joined the Tupper Lake and Harrietstown town boards and Saranac Lake village board, which previously resolved to ask the state to reconsider the rail corridor UMP. The boards of the towns of North Elba and Piercefield, and the village of Lake Placid, went further, asking the state to replace the railroad with a recreational trail.

The Tupper Lake village board room was packed with people who had opinions on the topic Tuesday evening, so many that the first portion of the meeting had to be moved up to the courtroom down the hall. A few dozen people showed, leaving standing room only, even with the larger number of seats in the courtroom – mostly Tupper Lakers, but also a Saranac Lake resident and a group of Clarkson University students who are studying the topic throughout the spring in their Adirondack Semester, during which students spend the semester in Saranac Lake studying Adirondack issues.

Ten people spoke out in support of the resolution, though the comments were largely in favor of ripping up the train tracks and putting a trail in the corridor.

As Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates member Chris Keniston noted during the comment period, the existing UMP for the corridor was created in the mid 1990s and allows the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to be run in the corridor. He said the UMP was supposed to be reviewed after five years, and any part of the corridor that was not used by rail at the time was supposed to revert to wilderness and possibly be put to use as a recreational trail.

Keniston, who has been lobbying village board members on the topic and has given them several presentations on it with fellow ARTA member Hope Frenette, said the state should make a decision what to do with the corridor, not have it debated in every little town and village along the path. Opening up the UMP would force the state to do that, he said.

“If it’s the train when it’s done … I’ll pack up my tent and go home,” Keniston said.

Most trail supporters said they have been waiting too long for the train to come back to Tupper Lake, and something needs to be done with the corridor sooner to encourage business.

“I have watched the railroads rot away with nobody utilizing this wonderful place,” said Kathy Keniston, Chris Keniston’s sister-in-law.

Several snowmobilers and people in favor of snowmobiling also spoke out, saying snowmobilers would be likelier to come to Tupper Lake if the tracks were removed, since several inches of snow have to pack into the tracks before they’re safe to ride on.

Even some people who are fans of trains said they think it might be better for the area to get rid of the tracks. Monica Parent said she travels often by train, including cross-country, because she loves it. But she said most people don’t understand that choice, since train travel is more expensive and takes longer than flying.

“Most people think I’m out of my cotton-pickin’ mind,” Parent said.

Nine people spoke out in favor of at least some sort of combination of rail and trail use in the corridor, and most of those said they support the Adirondack Rail Preservation Society and Next Stop Tupper Lake’s plan to rehabilitate the rail through the entire corridor from Remsen to Lake Placid and build a trail alongside it. They see the rails as having both historic and tourism value.

“Tearing up the tracks flies in the face of good economic sense,” said Next Stop Tupper Lake Chairman Dan McClelland, who is also the editor and publisher of the Tupper Lake Free Press.

While trail supporters say it’s not possible to put a trail alongside rehabilitated tracks, rail supporters say it is possible. David Tomberlin, a town councilman and Next Stop member, said ARTA members call the proposition too expensive, but maybe it’s time to put a number to it and see if it’s possible to get that amount of money.

A number of the rail supporters also said they’re worried that if the UMP is opened, environmental groups will seek to shut down at least parts of the corridor to motorized traffic. Saranac Laker Phil Gallos, who questioned projections from a study the ARTA commissioned, said environmental groups have been talking about closing the corridor to snowmobiles since the 1980s, though some say now they will support them if a recreational trail is installed.

“It’s taking a huge risk, because these ideas don’t just disappear,” Gallos said. “These are long-term goals.”

Gallos also said other people are likely to fight getting rid of the tracks, including historic preservationists and people who live along the corridor.

“This is not going to be quick and easy,” Gallos said.

Chris Keniston called that kind of talk fear-mongering, and village Trustee Rick Donah, who offered the resolution up for a vote in December and again this month, said the local municipalities can’t stop trying to move forward just because they’re scared of what environmental groups might do.

“If we’re going to fear what they may do, we might as well just pack it up now,” Donah said.

The topic has been controversial in Tupper Lake in recent years. The town has strong ties to the rail industry, but more and more people see getting rid of the tracks as a way to a more tourism-based economic future for the town.

“I love Tupper Lake, but I hate all this contention,” said Suzanne Orlando.

Donah said some business owners have been afraid of speaking out in favor of trails.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” Donah said. “Everybody should have a voice.

After everyone was given a chance to talk on the subject, village board members made their decisions. All four trustees voted in favor of the resolution, while Mayor Paul Maroun cast the only nay vote.

“We’ve got to stop living in the past,” said Trustee Tom Snyder. “Can’t look behind. Our history is bad.”

Maroun said he believes it’s possible for the North Country to get the money to do both rehabilitated rail and a trail in the corridor if the state can give several billion dollars to remake the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Despite the vote not going his way, Maroun said he was impressed with all the people at the meeting speaking their minds.

“It was an interesting decision,” Maroun said. “It was government at its best.”

Next Stop board member Kathy Lefebvre said the people working on rail rehabilitation will continue to move ahead, since she expects it to take at least half a decade for the state to get around to opening up the UMP.

Dan Mecklenburg, also part of Next Stop’s leadership, said he wouldn’t be surprised if next year the tracks have been rehabilitated from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake and trains could be heard pulling into Tupper’s train depot.

“It’s that close,” Mecklenburg said.

Maroun said the resolution will be sent to all of Tupper Lake’s state representatives.

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or