Why not both rails and trails?

I know this is supposed to be an opinion piece, but I’m going to ask a few questions instead. You should answer these questions before forming your own opinion about the future of the rail corridor that runs through the Adirondacks from Utica to Lake Placid.

There are a few undisputed facts that should be mentioned before we get to the questions. First, there are people and organizations that support the restoration of the tracks, some want to remove the tracks to build a new trail, and others favor both restoring the tracks and improving existing trails. All three options would boost the region’s tourism economy. There is a way to have both a scenic railroad AND a system of trails that could attract tourists to the Adirondacks whether they want to hike, bike, snowmobile or simply see the beauty of the region through the window of a historic rail car.

The decision facing state officials is which option is best.

The tracks already exist, and the necessary permits and agreements are in place so work could start almost immediately. The tearing up of the rails, removing and disposing of the ties and eventual trail construction would take considerably longer than simply restoring the tracks. Trails and rails would give tourists and residents a wide range of activities to enjoy. And the work could be done simultaneously. So why not have both?

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad has supported the “multi-user” approach to the corridor for more than 20 years. Every year, the railroad becomes a snowmobile trail from December to May. The train offers trips that combine rides with hiking, biking and canoeing. So why would the railroad oppose the development of trails? (It doesn’t!)

The state has been given a viable plan to connect the trail systems between northern Oneida County and Lake Placid. Dedicated volunteers have pored over maps and satellite images to prove that the existing trails need only modest improvements to become valuable addition to the economy of the region. So why would anyone oppose this option?

Now we get to the tough questions. Who are the people leading the effort to destroy the tracks? Answer: They are snowmobile enthusiasts who aren’t satisfied with the 10,000 miles of existing trails. They are devoted environmentalists who have spent decades trying to protect the wilderness from the encroachment of civilization. And there is at least one wealthy anti-rail advocate who owns property near the tracks. Does he have a “not in my backyard” motivation? Does the environmentalist really want to trade a limited number of trains for unregulated hikers who have no bathroom facilities and no place to dispose of their trash? Do the snowmobilers need the 100 miles of track removed, or do they just want a raceway through the wilderness?

The anti-rail zealots have threatened to force the state to reconsider its options by using every means available. The review which began last fall will not be enough unless it ends the way they want. Of course, they don’t mention the very real possibility of the state, or a court, deciding to ban all motorized or wheeled vehicles from parts of the corridor. The snowmobilers could work around that. The environmental lobby would be thrilled. And the wealthy guy could enjoy his backyard with no tourists. Does that seem like the best option?

It’s time for Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates to prove that they are truly advocates for recreational trails in the Adirondacks and not simply for the destruction of the tracks that connect Utica to Lake Placid. It’s time to implement the trails-and-rails option!

Gene Falvo lives in Utica and is a board member of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.