Democracy and the rail debate

When the people have spoken, when do their leaders have to listen?

We are engaged in what to me appears to be political theater over the future of the mostly abandoned rail corridor through the Adirondack Park from Old Forge to Lake Placid. These hearings on the rail corridor were originally billed as being determinant but now are presented only as a preliminary step to determine if the unit management plan for the corridor should be reopened. Huh? Of course it should be reopened, and quickly, as our communities are losing potential revenues every day that this wasted public resource is not available trail for biking, running, walking and savoring the natural world, for wheelchair use and for greatly improved snowmobiling. Nearly every local government along the corridor has asked the state to act. What does it take to get that message across?

Formal resolutions asking for UMP review have been adopted by nearly every affected community on the corridor. These are the elected officials who represent the same people now being asked to tell the New York State Department of Transportation if the UMP should be reviewed. Strange, no? What more do they need?

To make the question starker, more than 300 local businesses have said that they want a recreation trail where the rusting rails are now. More than 12,000 citizens, too. As have Lake Placid, Piercefield, North Elba, St. Lawrence County, the New York State Snowmobile Association and others. Editorial support for revising the UMP and for a recreation trail has been strong. No paper along the corridor has called for rail restoration. A poll one year ago by the Lake Placid News, duplicated recently by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, showed overwhelming support for a recreation trail over rail continuation. And still we need more input to see if the UMP should be reviewed. Huh?

No data has been presented by anyone supporting the benefits of rail restoration versus conversion to a recreation trail. No community has asked that the train be put back. And not many seem to want to keep the current train from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake, the train that the Albany Times Union called “the little train that shouldn’t.” In fact, North Elba just said “take it away” and gave back the grants it had to build a parallel bike path.

So what is going on with these hearings? The current UMP makes it clear that where rail service is not implemented, a recreation trail will be. There has been no regular rail service on the Old Forge-to-Saranac Lake section for more than 40 years, and at present none is possible as the ties are mostly gone, ballast has eroded, and spikes and other essential fittings are missing or scattered on the ground. The state never planned to pay for restoration of the corridor, and we as taxpayers should scream bloody murder if they propose to do so. Even what they are doing, at a cost of $200,000 or more each year to maintain the unused corridor, is a waste of our money.

It is time for the state to wake up and recognize that the people have already spoken: Revise the UMP! The railroad is not coming back. Hardly anyone wants it, it would cost a fortune to rebuild, and the real estate it sits on is demonstrably better used for recreation. We do not need this prolonged, multi-step process to arrive at a conclusion that an overwhelming majority of people, elected officials and businesses have already reached. This should be democracy at its finest, but I fear if this process drags on for months and years, it may be bureaucracy at its worst.

So my plea to the DOT is to move quickly. This is not a complex process. This result was anticipated in 1996, and the current UMP would require only trivial changes to let the unused section from Old Forge to Saranac Lake be developed into a working recreation trail quickly and, if North Elba and Lake Placid are to be listened to, the section from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid as well.

The excursion tourist train from Utica to Old Forge is not an issue, as it is not on the same rail line, and linking to a population center like Utica can help nearby communities like Old Forge without preventing communities further north and east from getting the benefits of an open corridor for bikes, hikers, snowmobilers and the like. But that remaining 90 miles cannot and should not be held hostage any longer.

There is no reason the governor could not make an executive decision on this right now, and I think he should. However, if, in the interest of propriety, he wants to wait for a recommendation from DOT and the Department of Environmental Conservation, so be it, but that wait should be months, not years.

Lee Keet lives on Lake Colby near the village of Saranac Lake and is a member of ARTA’s Board of Directors.