State railroad review is welcome

We’re glad the state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation have decided to reopen the unit management plan for the Remsen-Lake Placid railroad corridor. Such a review is overdue.

The open, public professional nature of the unit management planning process should result in a decision most Adirondackers can – and should – accept, whether they love it or not. It may be that the state replaces the rails with a bike path, or recommits to the train, or perhaps chooses some middle way. Unless something clearly goes wrong with the process, we expect we’ll respect the revised UMP as the will of the people.

The existing plan has outlived its best-by date and its usefulness. At the time it was developed, the railroad had lain fallow for some time: Passenger service ended in the 1960s and freight in the ’70s. In the ’80s, after a short-lived passenger rail revival for the Lake Placid Olympics, there was talk of tearing up the tracks for a multi-use path similar to that now being pushed by the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. In the 1990s, however, the UMP gave private interests another chance to bring trains back.

They’ve done that, but there are some sticking points:

1. They were expected to do it with their own money, rather than the state’s, but the state has since spent many millions of dollars to upgrade and maintain the track and its road crossings – although it hasn’t subsidized train operations. The question of whether New Yorkers have gotten their money’s worth is, after 18 years, due for a public accounting.

2. The railroad company was expected to run trains on the entire corridor. Passengers were to be able to ride all the way between Lake Placid and Utica, which offers connections to trains going all over the country. So far, though, trains have only been brought back from Utica to Big Moose, plus a 10-mile run between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. There’s a nearly 70-mile gap in between.

3. The tourist trains haven’t had the economic impact most Adirondackers would like to see, especially not anywhere north of Old Forge. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad is hanging in there, but tepidly. It’s something else for people to do while they’re here, but it does little to draw people here who weren’t already coming.

4. The provider keeps asking the state and federal governments for more money to achieve the dream, but if the past public seed money hasn’t sprouted the desired results, should the public reinvest? Not without reassessing what it’s doing.

5. What about private investment? A serious effort to lure that would require a business plan. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad has one, but it’s not finalized and therefore has yet to be released. A proposal by Iowa Pacific to run luxury Pullman cars up here doesn’t exactly count as investment, since the company hasn’t, as far as we know, put any money into the railroad in advance.

We understand it’s hard and expensive to re-establish a railroad, and maybe the public hasn’t gone far enough through the tunnel to see the light at the end. But if there is enough demand for a train to justify to the expense, wouldn’t it have shown itself more by now?

That’s why the UMP was supposed to be revised every five years – although it never has been. Now’s the time.

The train enjoyed strong support up here in the ’90s and 2000s, but in recent years, many people have started getting fed up. For one thing, the board of almost every town and village in the corridor has asked the state either to reopen the UMP or to replace the tracks with a trail.

Many rail supporters have fought against this review, but unless they showed significant progress on their own, it was only a matter of time before it happened.

The state owns this infrastructure and is responsible for it. Part of that means investing in it as needed, but part of that also is assessing the need.