Will the state reopen the rail corridor plan?

A majority of towns and all three villages along the railroad between Lake Placid and Old Forge now want the state to review the corridor’s usage plan. The state Department of Transportation says it will defer the decision to the North Country Regional Economic Development Council.

The town of Webb, which includes the hamlet of Old Forge, this month became the latest municipality to go on the books in asking the DOT to review the unit management plan for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. The town board adopted the resolution unanimously.

DOT spokeswoman Carol Breen told the Enterprise that her agency is aware of Webb’s resolution as well as others that have been passed in recent months. She said the DOT understands how important the corridor’s future is to the various stakeholders, and that the decision to reopen the UMP must be considered carefully.

“There are differing opinions among the communities along the corridor and other stakeholders,” Breen wrote in an email. “We are listening to the dialogue and will continue to work with state agencies and follow the lead of the (North Country) Regional Economic Development Council to determine the best plan to decide the future use for this important corridor.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo told the Enterprise in August 2012 he wants the NCREDC to lead the discussion about the corridor’s best use. Asked if the council will start a dialogue about the corridor soon, NCREDC Co-Chairman Garry Douglas said, “We really have no guidance as of yet regarding this year’s process or timetable.

“The council is just beginning its 2013 work which initially will be fully focused on the implementation of the 80 plus projects recently approved and the completion of last year’s projects, a number of which are still on going,” Douglas wrote in an email. “We should be in a position to again consider strategies and future potential projects a bit later this year, before summer.”

Douglas himself is a train enthusiast and has led efforts to increase train traffic along the corridor.

Webb joins the four other towns and all three villages along the corridor that have formally asked the DOT to lead a review of the UMP, which currently lets the Adirondack Scenic Railroad operate a tourist train on the tracks and encourages the development of parallel recreational trails where appropriate. The plan, completed in 1996, is supposed to be reviewed every five years, as all UMPs are. Like most of them, this one hasn’t been.

The towns of Tupper Lake and Harrietstown and villages of Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, as well as the Beaver River Property Owners Association, have also asked for a UMP review. Others have taken it one step further, asking for the train tracks to be removed outright in favor of a proposed year-round, multi-use recreational trail, an idea that’s been championed by the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators, the village of Lake Placid, the towns of North Elba and Piercefield, and the New York State Snowmobile Association have gone on record asking the DOT to remove the rails.

Three towns have yet to take a position in the ongoing debate: Long Lake, Colton and Santa Clara. Long Lake’s deputy supervisor, Cynthia Thompson, told the Enterprise this week that ARTA members have already made their pitch to the town board, and rail supporters – who don’t want the UMP to be reopened – plan to make a presentation to the board soon.

A stretch of railroad a little more than 2 miles long passes through the St. Lawrence County town of Colton near the Bog River. Colton town Supervisor Dennis Bulger said the rail-trail issue hasn’t been discussed by his board.

“I’m only aware of it through what I’ve read in the news,” he said. “It hasn’t been an issue up to this point.”

Bulger said he will bring the matter to his board’s attention.

Santa Clara town Supervisor Mickey Webb said his board has never had a detailed discussion about the corridor, especially since his town doesn’t have any businesses that would be affected by changes to it.

“I plan to bring it to the board for a discussion to see if they want to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ about opening up the Unit Management Plan, or to remove the tracks,” he said.

The rail-trail debate has dragged on for years now. Asked if local governments – municipal boards consisting of elected officials – deserve a more specific answer about whether the UMP will be reopened, Breen again deferred to the NCREDC, the leaders of which were appointed by the state, not elected.

“The Regional Economic Development Council needs to play a lead role in determining the best course of action for economic development and setting priorities – and priority projects – for the North Country,” she said. “We will provide the Council with any assistance needed.”

In the meantime, ARTA members view resolutions like the one passed by the Webb town board as significant developments in their fight to build a recreational trail.

“They want to determine the best future use of this rail corridor,” said Dick Beamish of Saranac Lake, a member of ARTA’s steering committee. “They all want to look into this and get all the information on the table about what the best use of the corridor is.”

Beamish said he understands that reopening the UMP isn’t an endorsement of ARTA’s cause, but it is the way the process is meant to work.

Bill Branson is president of the Adirondack Rail Preservation Society. He said many people weighed in on the corridor when the UMP was first developed, and what’s happening now is similar to the debate that took place in the 1990s.

Branson said he doesn’t think the state will reopen the UMP but that if it does, the discussion will prove that rehabilitating the corridor to expand train travel and adding more trails near it makes the most sense.

“We really believe that’s the right thing to do,” Branson said, “from a cost point of view, from a return-on-investment point of view, from a point of view of serving the most number of people with a many diverse interests, the best thing to do is to continue with it as it is and weave a trail system through the corridor, which in places (has) already happened anyway.”

Branson said the corridor should accommodate for as many uses as possible, “and labeling it a corridor for this or a corridor for that eliminates possibilities.”

Branson said reopening the UMP could result in a costly, years-long process that would delay projects that could happen in the short term, like rehabilitating tracks and developing trails.

“Reopening the plan presents a terrific amount of risk to a lot of people because the language is fairly clear and one of the possibilities – and it’s a large possibility – is it will lose its transportation corridor designation and revert to some form of private ownership or wilderness,” he said. “And that really defeats everybody’s purpose.”

The DOT’s Dawn Klemm, the corridor’s manager, told the Enterprise in 2011 that private ownership isn’t a possibility since the DOT has already purchased easements and property along the corridor.

Breen was a little more vague when asked Thursday if the corridor could revert to private ownership or wilderness.

“We can’t speculate on possible outcomes of revisiting the UMP but whatever we do, it’s important that the community is part of the decision,” she said.