A crushing blow to rail-trail coexistence

Bureaucracy has finally destroyed a plan for two visions of the Adirondack railroad corridor to coexist side by side, at least between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

It was largely bureaucracy that slowed down a plan to build a multi-use path beside this 10-mile stretch of railroad tracks, dragging out the process for more than a decade. Now we learn that, 10 years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it didn’t need to review the plan, it’s changed its mind. The extra expense and time for the engineering, mapping and planning the Corps requires are too much for the town of North Elba; it would bust the budget and the timeline for grant funding.

Therefore, the town council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday dropping the plan and asking the state to rip up the tracks and replace them with a trail. The timing was key: Earlier on the day of the vote, in Ray Brook in North Elba, the state held the second of four public-input meetings to help it decide whether to revisit its 1990s unit management plan that allowed trains to return to the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. A movement to replace the tracks with a multi-use trail, at least between Saranac Lake and the Old Forge area, has gained force in the last couple of years.

The town board members mostly don’t even support the train. Last year they passed a similar resolution asking the state to rip up the tracks, even as they pursued the railside trail. To their credit, they were intent on fulfilling their commitment, even as the project reeled, trying to stay solvent – until the Corps of Engineers delivered the knockout punch.

Apparently the Corps changed its rules in 2008, and now, even though the first phase of this project got a permit from the Adirondack Park Agency – which is supposed to govern wetland construction in the Park – and even though the Corps almost never intervenes in the Park, and even though this railroad was built through these marshes more than a century ago, and even though the Corps took a pass a decade ago, it’s now decided to charge in and, knowingly or not, ruin an important project with huge public support.

This trail would be excellent for locals’ health, tourism, athletics and economic development. It could still happen, but only if the Adirondack Scenic Railroad is obliterated between these two villages. What was killed is a symbol that compromise is possible in the fiercely contested Adirondack land-use battles.

Granted, the expense and excruciating delays of this side-by-side rail-trail project had already proved that it was not feasible to extend the same kind of thing along the rest of the railroad. While railroad backers support a trail beside the tracks, they say it would only work if it diverged from the corridor to skirt tricky sections like Lake Colby, Rollins Pond and Lake Lila.

This blow hurts those railroad fans worst. They are already feeling besieged by doubters, and their letters and commentaries on the Enterprise Opinion page often have a sharp tone of defensiveness. We suspect they feel like they’re on trial.

They are, whether they like it or not. They have a burden of proof. Besides choosing whether a train or a trail is the best use of the corridor, the state has to decide whether the tens of millions of tax dollars it has spent rehabilitating the railroad for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s exclusive use has been worthwhile – and whether to spend trainloads more (estimates range from $15 million to $45 million) to complete the line. That public overhead was not originally part of the deal; the ’90s plan recommended that trains be re-established with private investment rather than state funds. The railroad company, however, has not gotten private investors, except for a few of their own board members. It hasn’t even had a finished business plan, although it may have one now, just in time for the corridor plan meetings.

Meanwhile, local governments along the corridor have lost confidence; most have passed resolutions asking the state to either replace the rails with a trail or at least to reopen the plan.

The trail group, Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, also must be accountable. Some of the numbers in its studies seem incredibly high – for instance, the claim that more than 200,000 new visitors, not including snowmobilers, would come here to ride the trail every year. But ultimately, their idea hasn’t been tried yet. The railroad has.

Between Utica and Old Forge, it seems like a success that spills over to the wider business community – between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, not so much.

Still, it’s a viable business on that 10-mile run, even if its economic impact is modest. It’s a shame to have to get rid of that to gain the obvious benefits of the trail. It didn’t have to be that way.