Rabideau: Village likely won’t back rail grant

SARANAC LAKE – Village Mayor Clyde Rabideau said Monday that he doubts the village Board of Trustees will endorse the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society’s application for a $15.2 million federal grant to rehabilitate the railroad tracks between Big Moose and Saranac Lake.

“I have not heard support at this point,” Rabideau told the Enterprise after Monday night’s village board meeting.

His comments followed a presentation by ARPS board President Al Dunham, who asked the board to approve a resolution supporting the application by ARPS and the Adirondack North Country Association through the federal Strategic Transportation Enhancement Plan. The $15.2 million would be used to upgrade rails, ties and the ballast on a 68-mile stretch of track, Dunham said.

“It would get it up to Class II, which then gives trains the opportunity to run at 30 to 35 miles an hour,” Dunham said. “That gives us ample travel corridor to use excursion trains, scenic trains, special event trains and trains that would have people on board, say from the Wild Center teaching nature down through the corridor.”

While the grant application doesn’t include any plans for a trail alongside the rail corridor, Dunham said his group’s business plan calls for rails with trails. Once the tracks are rehabilitated, he said trains could be used to provide skiers, hikers and cross-country skiers access to spur trails located off the corridor.

“It would have been ideal if we had a partner that would have come in for some trail plans; we would have put the grant in for maybe $30 million,” Dunham said. “But we only had about 10 days to do this, and nobody offered to come in with us. We found out about this grant in the middle of February.”

Dunham said ARPS has so far received roughly 20 letters of support for the grant application from other local governments and organizations.

Shortly after Dunham’s presentation, representatives of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates spoke up and urged the board not to endorse the grant application. They cited the resolutions passed by five municipalities, including Saranac Lake’s village board, that call on the state to reopen the unit management plan for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor.

“This is a ploy on behalf of ANCA and the railroad buffs to basically subvert the very democratic process under the unit management plan that would allow all interested parties on both sides of this debate to finally be heard in a fair setting,” said ARTA President Joe Mercurio. “If they can get (the $15.2 million), basically what’s going to happen is, they’re going to shut down the UMP process altogether. If they get those tracks in place, no one in their right mind would rip them up, and that will be the end of the possibility of anybody being heard.”

“This rail experiment has been going on for close to 15 years,” said Saranac Lake resident Rich Shapiro. “It’s supposed to be self-sufficient, not using taxpayer money, yet on and on it goes, getting taxpayer money to maintain the rails.

“The grant they’re applying for is not for a rail-with-trail program. The trails outlined here are not through travel trails; they’re spurs that go off. It will not enable people to go from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake to Thendara, et cetera, which is really where the money will come in from a tourist standpoint.”

Trustees asked a few questions but made no decision on supporting the grant application Monday night.

Rabideau said he could “lean” in favor of it if the $15.2 million was for restoring rail service between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake and was for both rails and trails, but that’s not what’s being proposed. As it stands, Rabideau said he thinks “the odds are long” that ARPS and ANCA would get the $15.2 million.

“I just don’t think the federal government throws around $15 million willy-nilly on a proposal that was developed practically overnight, as was stated by the presenter here,” the mayor said after the meeting. “I really do believe the UMP will speak for the voice of the people once it’s all said and done. Then we should go apply for the appropriate grants based upon the direction given during the UMP process.”