When is a plan not a plan?
The back-and-forth arguments by rail and trail advocates seem to ignore the fact that we do have a plan for the Old Forge/Remsen-to-Lake-Placid corridor. This plan was developed by three state agencies (Adirondack Park Agency, Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation) in 1995. The relevant question now is this: Are we following the plan, and if not, how do we get the state to do its job?
It is formally called the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor Final Management Plan, and it lists six alternative uses for the corridor. The first three alternatives envision abandoning the corridor, or allowing no or minimal public use. These alternatives were rejected. The remaining alternatives were:
4. To open the entire length of the corridor to compatible recreational trail uses and allow no rail uses
5. To divide the corridor into rail/trail and trail-only segments
6. To permit rail uses over the entire length of the corridor.
Alternative No. 6 (restoring train service) was selected to be tried during a “rail marketing period.” At the end of this trail period, according to the plan, “corridor segments not included in rail proposals approved by the State will be committed to trail development.” In the event that no proposals for viable rail service were received during the marketing period, the state would implement alternative No. 4 (converting the entire corridor to trail uses).
In other words, the state decided 17 years ago to try to find private interests that would restore rail service on some or all of the corridor. If that did not occur, the state would make those portions of the corridor lacking train service available for trail development. The plan also required that “rail development will largely depend upon privately secured funding.”
The hope for privately financed “viable rail service” between Remsen and Lake Placid has not been fulfilled. One might also question whether a 9-mile tourist train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake qualifies as viable rail service. But it is undeniably clear that no viable service exists on the 81 miles between Saranac Lake and Thendara (Old Forge). This valuable asset has gone unused for the past four decades, except for a few excursion trains that barely made it up here from Utica during the 1980 Winter Olympics.
So how long was the “marketing period,” and when was the plan supposed to be reviewed? Answer: five years, i.e., 2001.
“The Final Corridor Management Plan will be reviewed and updated by the Interdepartmental Planning Team at five-year intervals,” according to the 1995 plan. Yet three such intervals have come and gone without review!
Revising the management plan for the corridor should not take long. The current plan took less than three years to prepare, starting from scratch. It identifies the natural features along the corridor, the impacts each option would have and the mitigation measures suggested for these impacts, and most of this work would not have to be redone. It only requires acknowledging that alternative No. 6 did not materialize and moving on to at least alternative No. 5.
Why has the state failed to do this? Probably because, until recently, no one has asked it to do so. And the DEC has dozens of other management plans that require attention. However, the need to give the corridor plan top priority has become increasingly clear. More than 11,000 outdoor recreationists have petitioned the state to convert the unused tracks to a recreation trail. Nine of the 11 towns and villages along the corridor have asked the state to reopen the management plan or immediately remove the tracks. The two remaining towns have yet to act but have the issue on their agendas. Both the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and the Press-Republican have editorialized in favor of reopening the plan. The Albany Times Union has called for converting the rail corridor to a world-class recreation trail.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates has pressed for immediate revision of the management plan to allow conversion of that portion of the corridor without regular train service into one of the nation’s premier bicycling, walking, running and snowmobile trails. ARTA has not opposed continued use of the seasonal tourist train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake if the town of North Elba ever builds a planned parallel path. Alternatively, those tracks could be removed at a great cost savings (versus constructing a parallel boardwalk through extensive wetlands), as both Lake Placid and North Elba have requested by formal resolution.
Either way, communities along the corridor will reap immense economic benefits from the Adirondack Rail Trail. Studies vary as to how much economic impact the trail would provide, but it is in the tens of millions of dollars per year, all from new visitors to the area. ARTA has called on the three state agencies to reopen the management plan without further delay. No matter how you count the lost-opportunity time – 41 years since regular train service ended, or 17 years since the management plan first surfaced – it has been too long since this public resource was used to the benefit of the region.
Lee Keet lives on Lake Colby in Saranac Lake and is a member of the ARTA Board of Directors.