100+ turn out for Ray Brook rail/trail meeting

RAY BROOK – State officials were surprised to see well over 100 people show up to a hearing Tuesday on the rail corridor between Remsen and Lake Placid.

As people piled into a meeting room in the state Department of Environmental Conservation building, DEC spokesman Dave Winchell said he and the rest of the staff hadn’t expected this many people since it was an afternoon meeting.

He asked anyone who had attended a similar meeting the previous evening in Old Forge to wait in the lobby area while the rest of the group heard a short presentation from DEC and state Department of Transportation officials.

The DEC and DOT are considering a review of plan that governs the use of the state-owned transportation corridor between Remsen and Lake Placid. It currently houses the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which runs trips between Utica and Big Moose as well as between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, but a stretch in the middle is dormant. Rail advocates want to keep the train going, while other groups are fighting to rip up the tracks and install a recreational trail in their place.

DEC Forest Preserve Coordinator Karyn Richards started off the presentation by explaining that the series of public meetings are to gather input on whether to amend the unit management plan for the corridor or to keep the status quo.

“This is a very important issue,” Richards said. “The commissioners take this very, very seriously.”

Ray Hessinger, director of the DOT’s Freight and Passenger Rail Bureau, then took the standing-room-only crowd through a presentation that gave an overview of the history of the corridor. He said the DOT and DEC are now looking for an understanding of what the issues are, how the corridor has been managed, and how it should be managed.

The current process began in August with meetings between the two state agencies and the main stakeholder groups: the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, the New York State Snowmobile Association and the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society, which now runs the Adirondack Scenic Railroad in the corridor. Each group was allowed to send three representatives. Those from ARTA and NYSSA, which have been working together to advocate for getting rid of the train tracks, gave DEC and DOT a presentation together, while the ARPS people met separately with the state agencies.

Then Monday, DOT and DEC started the series of public meetings, with the first one in Old Forge, to which about 250 people showed up. The meetings continued Tuesday in Ray Brook, and two more will be held next week, in Utica and Tupper Lake.

Besides the comments at the Old Forge meeting, Hessinger said DOT and DEC have received about 425 emails and a stack of letters on the topic so far.

“Trust me, we’re getting a lot of comments,” Hessinger said. “They’re asking some very good questions; they’re making some excellent points.”

The two state agencies will try to find answers to the questions and figure out the truth about the corridor. Then they anticipate making a recommendation to their respective commissioners by the end of the year on whether to do a formal revision of the UMP or to keep the current one intact.

After explaining that, the DEC and DOT officials told the people gathered that they would staff four listening stations, and attendees should talk with those staff members to submit their comments.

When one audience member tried to ask what the DEC’s role is in the corridor management, saying he wanted everyone to hear the answer, officials declined to answer the question. They said the listening stations were being set up to take those kinds of comments.

Betty and Wayne Tucker of Rainbow Lake were among the people there to advocate for keeping the railroad. Betty focused on the idea that people could use the railroad to travel from the Tri-Lakes to a number of areas throughout the Northeast through rail connections in Utica. She saw a catalogue with information about a fall foliage tour from Chicago that took passengers to Albany, then Rutland and throughout the rest of Vermont on a bus.

“All our beautiful foliage, no one ever saw, and they never spent a dime here,” Betty Tucker said.

She said the Tri-Lakes area could do more with marketing bundle packages with the railroad, local attractions, meals and events, like the ASR does on the southern end of its line.

She and her husband are on the board for the Adirondack Carousel in Saranac Lake, and they said they see the railroad having a big impact on attendance there.

“When the train comes in, the lines are out the door to the carousel,” said Wayne Tucker, who is also on the ARPS board.

They said they worry ending the scenic railroad would hurt Saranac Lake businesses.

Lindy Ellis, who runs a tandem bicycle shop and touring business in Saranac Lake with her husband, was one of the people present to advocate for a trail. She talked about a town in Minnesota that has benefited significantly from a rail-turned-trail there, and she said the Tri-Lakes would see that kind of economic benefit if the corridor was turned into a multi-use trail.

“Multi-use trails put heads in beds,” Ellis said. “When you get them active, they eat more.”

People who bike, walk or run on a trail would stop every 10 miles or so for a snack or a drink, which would foster mom-and-pop businesses to grow and spring up along the trail, she said.

“It builds the economy in a way that is really sustainable,” she said. “I think it’s a tremendously good fit.”

She said her business currently brings people from an average of about 150 miles away to the Adirondacks for tandem bike tours, and she said bikers seek out hub communities like Saranac Lake, which has a strong foundation in the arts. She said a trail could help a town like Tupper Lake become a hub as well.

As people talked with DOT and DEC representatives, they wrote the comments on large sheets of paper and posted them around the rooms. People also submitted thoughts on slips of comment sheets, as well as pre-written letters.

Winchell said the comments will be typed and posted on the DEC’s website.

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.