Railroad fact and fiction

For something as important as the debate over the best use of the old Adirondack Railroad corridor between Lake Placid and Old Forge, it’s essential that we separate fact from fiction. This mostly unused corridor through the heart of the Adirondacks is vital to our future. It represents a unique opportunity to improve the economic health of our communities and add a new recreational dimension to the Adirondack Park.

In recent weeks, the misinformation has been flowing fast and furious. Take Michael McNulty’s commentary of April 10, as an example. Mr. NcNulty insists that we can have both a rail and trail on the Remsen-Lake Placid line. He envisions “shared use” of the corridor, where tracks and trail exist side by side.

Sounds reasonable, right? There’s only one problem. That constantly repeated refrain is not based on reality. We can’t have it both ways. It might be possible to build a parallel trail alongside the 9 miles of track between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, if the $5, $6 or $7 million (whatever it takes) ever becomes available. But for the next 81 miles connecting Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Beaver River, Big Moose and Old Forge, there is no way we can have both a train and a trail in that single-track corridor. To have both would require doubling the width of the rail bed, which crosses lakes and stream outlets and miles of wetlands.

To have a side-by-side trail would require that vast amounts of fill be dumped into environmentally sensitive areas. The Adirondack Park Agency could not approve such a project. Even if a “shared corridor” were environmentally permissible, which it isn’t, it would be financially impossible. Can you imagine the cost of this double-edged boondoggle? The fortune in taxpayer money needed to build a side-by-side trail, plus the $43 million (state Department of Transportation estimate) to restore a railroad for which there is no need and no market?

Mr. McNulty’s commentary took the form of an open letter to the DOT commissioner in Albany, supporting an application for a $15.2 million state grant that would enable the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to begin restoration of the line between Lake Placid and Old Forge.

“The grant application is nothing more than the railroad attempting to provide better service to the people that it serves,” he explained. In fact, this application is a bold attempt by the Adirondack North Country Association and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to circumvent the unit management planning process that governs the use of this state-owned corridor. The intent of the railroad boosters is to raise enough taxpayer money to begin rail restoration before the management plan can be reviewed and updated. They know that once the repair work begins, the proposed 90-mile rail trail through the Adirondacks will be effectively blocked.

Mr. McNulty’s commentary has a surprise ending, however. He concludes by supporting a move that Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates and most towns and villages along the corridor are calling for: an update of the management plan to determine the best use of the corridor.

“A unit management plan review is not an endorsement of a trail,” Mr. McNulty correctly observes. “If a UMP review can be conducted, it will give all interested parties a chance to present information and ideas as to how to proceed.”

A response is also due the letter from Henry Parnass, a respected member of our community whose leadership some years ago resulted in establishing the tourist train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

“If the current track is removed, it will never be replaced,” Mr. Parnass predicted. Perhaps, unless there is someday a greater need for restoring the railroad than maintaining a recreational trail. But so long as the rail bed remains intact, the option always exists to re-establish rail service if it’s truly needed, and if it serves a greater public good than its use as a recreation trail. However, it’s hard to imagine a future need for train service between Utica and Lake Placid when the real and urgent need, now and for the rest of the 21st century, is for high-speed rail connecting our major cities.

Mr. Parnass concludes: “Removal of this track for the sole purpose of satisfying skiers and walkers is not in the public’s best interest.” If it were just for walkers and skiers, he might be right. But this trail would be a major tourist destination for hundreds of thousands of bicyclists from New York and nearby states – in fact, from all over. That’s where the economic payoff will come from, as well as from greatly improved snowmobiling in the corridor. Of course, the Adirondack Rail Trail will be a delight for other recreational users as well. These will include walkers and runners, parents pushing strollers, people in wheelchairs, binocular-toting bird watchers, families with kids, old folks out for a stroll and long-distance cyclists making an adventurous traverse of the Adirondack Park.

Mr. McNulty had it right. It’s time for the state to revisit the unit management plan for the corridor, gather and analyze all the data, listen to all the arguments, weigh the evidence, and then decide on the best public use of this extraordinary public asset.

Dick Beamish lives in Saranac Lake and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.