Hundreds attend rail/trail meeting in Tupper Lake

TUPPER LAKE – More than 200 people showed up at The Wild Center museum for the fourth and final rail/trail public comment session.

As with the previous meetings, four tables were set up, and each was staffed with a representative from the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Transportation.

The tables also had large sheets of paper to document the comments and queries of attendees regarding how the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor should best be utilized.

Attendees mingled throughout the room, and more often than not their garb gave their opinion away. Many pro-rail people sported yellow railroad crossing stickers while many pro-trail people donned ARTA (Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates) stickers, bright yellow shirts or both. It was difficult to discern which side had more representatives.

Though the room was divided on its stance, there was one thing advocates on both sides agreed upon: It is time for the state to make a decision. They might have to wait a little longer for that to happen.

DOT director of rails Raymond Hessinger said his agency plans to complete its portion of the process by the end of the year. That means sifting through hundreds of comments collected at the four meetings and reading more than 800 emails. With the deadline for commenting set at Sept. 25, those numbers are likely to go up.

“We’ve been flooded with emails and letters,” Hessinger said. “We’ve already seen some questions posed that we don’t have answers to. That’s part of this process, making sure everything is answered before we make a recommendation.”

Once the DOT makes its recommendation, the state will then decide whether to reopen the unit management plan to review how the rail corridor can be used. Until a decision is made, proponents of each side will be left to hope the state sees things their way.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for them to open up the UMP, but if they do, I don’t think it’s a detriment to us,” said Bethan Maher, executive officer of the Adirondack Rail Preservation Society. “We can prove the railroad will be a viable thing, especially on the southern end, where we’ve developed the potential. We can develop that same potential by extending that service to Lake Placid.”

Proponents of the trail were equally optimistic.

“The demand is clearly out there,” said ARTA board member Jim McCulley, of Lake Placid. “We have over 12,000 signatures and 300 businesses that have signed up to ask directly for the tracks to be removed. We’re pretty confident that, if this goes by fact, we win. If it rests on emotion, who knows?”

Advocates on each side were just as adamant about their stance.

“I grew up in Thailand, and there the train is a big part of our lives,” said Sudjai Bentley of Mount Arab. “You hear it come in the morning, boop-boop, it blows its whistle and everyone runs to greet it.”

Sudjai said the train brings people together, and her husband, Dick, said it is an important step toward preparing for climate change.

“Look, we’re going to reach a point soon where we can’t rely on cars and oil anymore,” he said. “If we can’t adapt up here, the population will collapse.”

But what if people were healthier? Hannah Littlefield of Lake Placid, who grew up in Tupper Lake, said she runs every day and added that people would be more apt to run or bike if there was a safe place to do it. That, she said, would help local economies.

“As a longtime Tupper Lake resident, I feel like this economy is hurting more than the rest of the Tri-Lakes, and I know the trail would bring more business here than a rail,” Littlefield said. “The rail only brings people to downtown Tupper Lake. Nowadays people are all about exercise and health and being active. Using the trail would give them access to the entire town.”

It takes a die-hard runner to run during a North Country winter, though. Stuart Nichols of Tupper Lake said a rail trail would be a boon to the snowmobile industry and would draw people from other areas.

“I like to ride at least 100 miles when I go out,” Nichols said. “Right now, it’s hard for snowmobilers to get in and out of Tupper Lake. Tug Hill is a $400 million (snowmobiling) industry. We need to get those tracks pulled out and get some of that money up here.”

Nancy Howard, of Tupper Lake, who used to run the Wawbeek resort on Upper Saranac Lake with her husband, agreed that the area needs to be more accessible to outsiders, which is why she said the train is the way to go.

“Having answered the phone thousands of times over the years to talk to people who were interested in coming to the Adirondacks, it was extremely difficult to get people to wrap their arms around the fact that they first had to travel to Albany, Burlington or Montreal to get to the Adirondacks,” she said. “That’s three hours in either direction. The Adirondacks stand to grow so much from having people travel by railroad.”