Questions about the rail plan review

RAY BROOK – A number of people involved in the rail-versus-trail debate in the Remsen-Lake Placid travel corridor are expressing concern about the process.

When the state announced in June that its departments of Environmental Conservation and Transportation would review the unit management plan governing the corridor, which currently houses the controversial Adirondack Scenic Railroad, many believed it meant the state was beginning a full unit management plan review process.

Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, an advocacy group pushing to remove the railroad tracks and install a multi-use recreational trail there instead, even held a party in July to celebrate the UMP opening.

So many were surprised to learn, when the state started holding public meetings on the topic last week, that the meetings are only “listening sessions” to decide whether to open the corridor’s plan, not hearings to gather comments to help put together a revised one.

Several people in Old Forge and Ray Brook said they were surprised when they heard that the meetings were not the start of the official UMP revision process, but rather a step to decide whether to revise it at all.

ARTA board President Joe Mercurio said he didn’t know that until he ran into an Enterprise reporter Monday, after the Old Forge meeting. He said his group respects the process and won’t really change the way it goes about participating in it.

If the state decides not to do a full review of the UMP, Mercurio said he would honor that. ARTA has held throughout their entire advocacy campaign that if the state decides to keep the railroad in the corridor, the group would honor that decision.

But then Mercurio spent some time talking with fellow trail advocates, and he told the Enterprise he’s hearing a different story from them.

“It turns out, if the state after these listening sessions decides not to open the hearings, there’ll be a firestorm,” Mercurio told the Enterprise. “I won’t have to say a thing. But people out there are going to raise hell, because of a lot of them are as surprised as I was these are just listening sessions, and if that’s as far as it goes, they’re not going to be quiet.”

He said many came to the meeting Tuesday expecting a formal hearing on the UMP.

“They can’t believe this is all there is right now,” Mercurio said.

Not everyone was surprised, though. Wayne Tucker, a board member for the Adirondack Rail Preservation Society, told the Enterprise he wasn’t. From the beginning in June, he understood the current plan would be reviewed, not necessarily revised. He even wrote a letter to the editor published in the Enterprise correcting an editorial to say as much.

Tucker said he believes the review will be enough, and the state will decide not to revise the UMP.

“Naturally, I think our argument is stronger,” Tucker said.

Ray Hessinger, director of the DOT’s Freight and Passenger Rail Bureau, agreed that there may have been some confusion over the review.

“Certainly, the way the press release ended up being worded might have given the wrong impression,” Hessinger told the Enterprise.

The listening sessions were scheduled quickly, and ARTA members said they sped up their preparation process to be ready for them.

The press release issued June 6 by the DOT laid out a specific process.

“The DOT and DEC will work with the (Adirondack Park Agency) and schedule public scoping meetings on a timely basis to help determine what issues and factors will be considered in the environmental review,” it read. “Both agencies will subsequently prepare an amended draft UMP/EIS (environmental impact statement) laying out a vision for the future of the Travel Corridor. The draft UMP/EIS will be widely available for public review and comment prior to developing a final UMP/EIS that will be considered by the APA, and ultimately approved by Commissioners McDonald and Martens.”

Hessinger said there was never any intention to open the UMP and revise it right off the bat. He said both DOT and DEC’s commissioners have been adamant about that from day one.

If the UMP is opened, public hearings would be held that would be different from the listening sessions, and an environmental impact assessment would need to happen.

“It’s a more formal process,” Hessinger said. “This isn’t that. This is something less than that.”

He said commissioners wanted to assess whether there’s a need to revise the UMP before going into the process, “because it’s a lot of effort in a formal process that we don’t necessarily have to go through for this initial stage to review.”

If the UMP isn’t opened, it would keep the Adirondack Scenic Railroad in the corridor. Hessinger said there are still opportunities for trails throughout the corridor, but not along the entire length of the railroad.

“Let’s be realistic; you can’t run a trail the entire length of that corridor if the tracks are there,” Hessinger said.

If the UMP is opened, that doesn’t necessarily mean the railroad is out, Hessinger said.

“We’ve made no decisions at all with that respect,” Hessinger said. “That’s certainly a possibility we could end up with.”

If it’s opened, the state would come up with a series of options to consider, and then it would seek public input on those specific options, he said.

“The commissioners really wanted to get this sense before putting the time and effort into putting together a set of thoughts and recommendations to consider or alternatives to consider,” he said.


Other concerns

Others have concerns about the way the listening sessions are being conducted. At Tuesday’s meeting in Ray Brook, a member of the audience stood up and tried to ask what the DEC’s role is in the corridor management, saying he wanted everyone to hear the answer. But officials declined to answer the question. They said the listening stations were being set up to take those kinds of comments.

Several North Elba town board members attended the Tuesday meeting in Ray Brook, and they criticized its format before their board meeting later that day.

Councilman Bob Miller said he felt like the meetings were set up as a way to get people to stop people from yelling at each other, rather than a way to truly gauge people’s feelings on the topic.

“It was not the way democracy should exist,” Miller said.

The North Elba board passed a resolution at the meeting asking the state to open the UMP and amend it to rip up the tracks and allow a path to be installed in its place.

Village of Lake Placid board members said Monday night that they will consider weighing in on the issue but have not made any decisions yet.