Rail support heavy at Utica meeting

UTICA – In Ray Brook and Old Forge, the state heard a variety of opinions from people on the rail-versus-trail debate, but the discussion was not nearly as evenly weighed in Utica.

Around the first-floor meeting room at the State Office Building Monday, state workers wrote comments from attendees on large sheets of paper, then posted the sheets on the walls. Toward the end of the three-hour listening session, 10 to 12 sheets were posted on the walls, each with maybe 15 or 20 comments on them. Maybe three or four comments total were from people who want the state to get rid of the train tracks in the corridor between Remsen and Lake Placid, where the Adirondack Scenic Railroad currently operates.

The rest argued for keeping the railroad tracks in the corridor, and many wore yellow stickers with an imitation of a railroad sign to support the ASR.

About 130 people filed into the building Monday afternoon to weigh in on whether the state should open the corridor’s unit management plan or keep it as it is, about the same number of people who showed up to an afternoon meeting in Ray Brook last week.

“It’s great to have DEC public meetings that get a lot of interest,” said state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Steve Litwhiler, noting that often the staff outnumber members of the public at DEC meetings.

He said the format of having four listening stations at which people talk to staff and have their comments written down was done to be able to get more comments in a shorter amount of time, and he said it has worked well.

Doug Preston, president of the Utica and Mohawk Valley Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, presented to a state staffer a packet full of information, each stamped with a sticker printed with his full name and address. It included a personal statement, a guidebook on tourist trains to show there’s a market for such attractions, an article from a central New York writer that makes a concise argument for the train, a calendar the ASR uses for fundraising and a pamphlet the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates have been distributing, with sections he called misleading or inaccurate highlighted and lined with notes.

Preston said he’s been involved in the ASR since the beginning. He said it makes the wilderness accessible to more people, not just outdoorsy types who can hike in long distances but also older people, children and people with disabilities.

Preston suggested that if people in the Tri-Lakes want to see the railroad be more successful here, “volunteer; get involved.” He said it’s hard to run the railroad mainly on volunteer support, and the more help the ASR gets, the more it can do.

Ellen Meyers of Holland Patent said she’d get up to the Saranac Lake area more if there was a train that went that way. But she doesn’t like driving, and the roads are so congested that she doesn’t visit here.

Adirondack Rail Preservation Society Executive Officer Bethan Maher said the support for the train is so strong in Utica because it has had the chance to more fully develop there. It’s an integral part of the community there, with lots of backing from area politicians. County legislators held a press conference the day before the hearing to ask for support in keeping the rails in the corridor.

Maher said she understands there’s a lot of frustration in the Tri-Lakes area over the railroad since there have been setbacks in expanding the tracks from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake and beyond. A big part of the problem, she said, has been that the railroad operates on a 30-day revokable permit because the state never completed a more long-term lease, and that makes getting private funding and grants difficult, she said.

Maher said if the Tri-Lakes give the railroad a chance to fully develop, people will see the benefits there that are apparent in Utica.

Jeff Johnson, a past president of the New York State Snowmobile Association and a current regional representative, said the main reason there was little trail support at the meeting was that it was held during the day, when most snowmobilers are working to pay for their snowmobiles. Otherwise, he said, there would have been more of them there advocating for taking out the tracks.

Johnson said he’s concerned that the way the meetings have been set up is biased toward what he called a powerful railroad lobby.

“I’m very concerned it’s twisted to one side,” Johnson said.

He said he would like to see the state pay more attention to the snowmobiling population, which he said is a huge economic driver for the state.

“Guess what? We’re not going away,” Johnson said. “We’re not the red-headed stepchild.”

His sport has been making millions on the corridor for decades, and he said wants to see it have more of a chance to thrive.

He said that if the ASR were able to get successful train service through the whole corridor, NYSSA would be willing to work with them, but it’s taking too long.

“They’ve had 25 years to get something together, he said.

Matt Giardino, of Amsterdam, is a snowmobiler and a former NYSSA member, and he said he and his snowmobiling friends believe there would only be a few extra weeks at the beginning and the end of the winter if the tracksare removed.

“Most of the people I know who ride don’t think it would make a difference,” Giardino said.

He’s a railroad buff, and he’s volunteered for the ASR in the past, but he said he was mainly there Monday as a concerned citizen. He said he’s always been a fan of the Adirondacks, and he hopes to one day be able to take the train to places like Lake Lila with his kayak so he can get off and paddle around.

Utica has the people who want to get up to the Adirondacks, while Saranac Lake sees the people who are here already, he said.

So far, the state has received about 700 emails in the email account designated for the debate over the corridor, Ray Hessinger, director of the DOT’s Freight and Passenger Rail Bureau, said in the presentation that opened the meeting.

“The public expressing their opinion has been far more than I expected,” Hessinger said. “And I expected a lot of opinion on this.”

DEC forester Rob Davies said the state will need to do some research to find out which claims are accurate and which are not. Once they’ve discerned the truth about the corridor, they plan to make a recommendation to the DEC and DOT commissioners on whether to keep the UMP as is, or to revise it.


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