Announcement was surprisingly decisive

A bold compromise – that’s how we see what the state departments of Transportation and Environment Conservation announced Wednesday. They were overdue to make a decision about the future of the state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor, and the proposal they rolled out showed they weren’t just dithering all that time.

Not only did they decide to reopen the 1996 unit management plan – a big step, but one which by itself could have been aimless – they also introduced a specific proposal: Remove the tracks from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake, replacing them with a trail for bicycles, snowmobiles and other uses, and renovate the tracks from Tupper Lake south to the Old Forge area.

That’s not set in stone, but it will be a draft UMP amendment to be discussed in hearings.

It’s surprisingly decisive for the state in this debate, as it’s raged in recent years.

Let’s imagine if this proposal goes through. Groups on both sides would lose part of what they want, but hey, it’s a compromise, and that’s what’s needed in such a divided debate.

Tupper Lake could gain bike traffic from the Fish Creek and Rollins Pond campgrounds in summer, snowmobile traffic from northern Franklin County in winter, and train traffic from Utica – none of which it has now. It would lose the potential for train traffic from Lake Placid as well as snowmobile traffic on the tracks from Old Forge, except on the tracks or side trails, but all in all, it seems like a fairly good deal for the “Crossroads of the Adirondacks.”

Lake Placid and Saranac Lake would also do alright. They would lose the train but gain a safe way for cyclists to get between the two villages: commuters to jobs in Lake Placid and athletes in training to the better biking north of Saranac Lake. As of now, all three ways for cyclists to get out of Lake Placid are scary: the Wilmington Notch, the Cascade pass and the Sara-Placid Highway. However, the DOT could go a long way toward solving the problem by putting bike lanes on routes 86 and 73.

Reopening the corridor’s UMP is like holding an election for an incumbent politician – in this case, the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs tourist trains at both ends of the track and wants to do so all the way through from Utica to Lake Placid. ARPS says the UMP review is unnecessary, costly and time-consuming, but it’s the right thing to do, for several reasons:

-We’re 18 years out on a plan that was supposed to be updated every five.

-Almost every local municipality on the Adirondack railroad corridor has passed a resolution asking the state to reopen it, and many have gone further and asked for a trail in place of the rails. The state would be irresponsible to ignore the people’s elected leaders.

-The state-owned corridor’s potential is largely wasted, and that wasn’t the point of the 1996 UMP. The Utica-Thendara run is definitely worth keeping, but then the line is dormant for 70 miles until you get to the north-end run between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, which has never really made it. People do ride it – it’s not the ghost train some say it is – but in the robust Lake Placid tourism market, it’s a small drop in a very big bucket. Plus, now in its 14th year there, the train has had to reduce service, eliminating less-profitable portions of the summer season. This year it opened more than a month later than usual.

-There’s a legitimate challenger. The bike-snowmobile-etc. path proposed by Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates is backed by thousands of petitioners and hundreds of businesses, and many more people are intrigued by it. It may not do all ARTA promises it would, but it’s worth public consideration.

ARPS says it’s been held back because the state hasn’t followed through on two aspects of the 1996 plan: Sign a multi-year lease with the train company (ARPS), and rehabilitate the track. That’s a good point, but it’s also a huge investment. Estimates for track rehab range between $15 million and $45 million, and our experience with rehab makes us think the higher number is more likely.

Plus, if the state did those things, is ARPS the company that will turn it into a success? How, exactly, would it take us from here to there? It has a business plan that it’s reportedly given the DOT and DEC, but it has declined to share that plan more widely. We’ve seen it but weren’t allowed to have a copy. Now that it has to appeal to more than just state agency staff, it’s time to share that business plan so the public, which owns the corridor, can vet it.

ARTA, meanwhile, has to show that their trail predictions are not starry eyed.

Like any incumbent, ARPS has a record to run on, for better or worse. ARTA doesn’t; it’s hard to forecast how the multi-use trail would turn out. That’s a risk.

Either way, it’s nice to see a decision is in the works. These are interesting times in the Adirondacks.