Do you remember the Dr. Seuss story about the north-going and south-going Zax that ran into each other and would not budge from their tracks? They argued and argued about who was right but would not budge an inch. Nothing was solved, and over time, life went on; they built a new highway right above them. Here in the Adirondacks, the Zax are on the tracks. With no compromise, nothing is getting done.
It is very sad to me to see this happening. Along with many good, caring and generous people over the last 13 years, we’ve worked as caretakers of an important regional asset; it’s been a lot of time and labor of love, working to preserve rail service in the Adirondacks.
Why have we all done it? Well, there is nostalgia, a word that describes respect for something great from the past. With the railroad’s long history as a building block for all the towns along the way, that is valid, and it’s a really cool link to the past we respect. But it is not enough and is not what drives us.
We see the railroad as about the future. We know it is a great asset. It is about transportation, now and for future generations. It is about being relevant as an economic generator, or sustainer of sorts for other industry. I won’t go on too long, but in the past I have written about the potential of rail car repair shops, a steam-town-like facility in Tupper Lake, a trans-load facility for oil, gas and propane, salt and wood products. Anyone use these bulk commodities? I know from experience that the freight potential is too quickly dismissed. Look at the bulk product everyone uses, moving on the local roads in big trucks. There is no reason some of that could not go by rail.
Then there is the tourist potential. Big things are about to happen in Tupper Lake, I hope and pray. Saranac Lake has worked hard to develop in an attractive way, and Lake Placid is a respected name – a brand, really – and is an important destination that provides a great terminus for visitors. The great thing about the railroad is it ties the Tri-Lakes all together so nicely.
A lot has been written about cost to the taxpayer. Somehow the perception is the railroad tracks cost money while a trail will be free. I don’t know why this is, because it is a myth. Go to the rails-to-trails website, and look up funding source ideas: state and federal grants, user fees, local taxes, fundraisers. In Vermont where I live now, there are some rail trails. Who takes care of them? Entirely the state Transportation Agency. In other words, the taxpayers. Everything done by the taxpayer. What makes anyone think this would somehow not be the case in the Adirondacks? The fact is, there is a certain cost to maintain the property that will not go away and will have to be funded. That’s reality. The fact is, either use will have similar costs associated with it that will require public support. So let’s not argue about this one. As my father used to say, “It just is.”
The unit management plan (UMP): Yes it can be reopened. The present UMP says it “can” but not “has to.” Reopen it at your own risk. The issues have already been debated, and it is clear there is ample support split for both sides. That is not going to change. Do you really want to hash it out for what could be years more? I predict everyone will be at the same place, except now it will be opened up to outside interests who will want a share, too. We have seen this with any development or land-use issue locally. And these folks don’t give up easily! But it does not have to be this way. Tomorrow we can work together united on a common goal for both rail and trail. Both sides get to peruse their vision, and it’s even better because it is enhanced by the other! What is not to like about that?
We want to work together with ARTA to develop something great and unique! Obviously we need the tracks in place, but there is no reason we cannot develop or connect to trails all over! And we want to be that “connection.” And it is already happening with the good work North Elba is doing with their parallel trail project. Do something unique! A town without a railroad is not as alive as a town with one. A trail alongside, or here and there, will compliment and give the community the best of both worlds, attracting EVERYONE instead of just one group.
Working together also helps the transportation planners. These are the good professional planners who plan for the future with today’s assets. The railroad in place is a great tool for them in their toolbox and is why the present arrangement has been so satisfactory to them. The corridor is used and watched over, and stands ready for the future additional loads. Let’s not take that away from them or the future generation. Working together, we don’t have to.
Back to the Zax. There are two, and unlike the book, one – the railroad Zax – is ready, willing and able to work together. I hope the other Zax joins us soon. I hope for unity and unique answers that bless everyone in some way. Because until it does, until there is unity and cooperation, nothing will happen and nobody will invest in anything. Let’s end the stalemate and show others how it can be done!
Can we please just work together? I promise it will be a rewarding experience.
Pete Snyder is a former operations manager of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and now lives in Irasburg, Vt.