Recent news that the Lake Placid-to-Saranac Lake rail-side recreation path project received a $1.2 million grant should put to rest any debate about what "should" be done with the northern portion of the 119-mile Remsen-Lake Placid travel corridor.
The Federal Highway Administration grant has been awarded to the Adirondack North Country Association on behalf of New York State Department of Transportation through a very competitive process - 1,800 applications were submitted, requesting more than 30 times the funds available - for projects under the National Scenic Byways Program. This grant is one of the largest amounts received in this round of funding, indicating strong support at the national level to boost recreation and improve infrastructure simultaneously.
The grant will be used to make the first phase of the Olympic Byway Recreational Path project a reality: an 8-to-10-foot-wide multi-use path to be built along existing rail tracks connecting the village of Lake Placid with the hamlet of Ray Brook, and ultimately to Saranac Lake. Once complete, it will allow access for a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts, including hikers, bikers, runners, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.
This trail beside the rail line in Saranac Lake, with a fence in between, shows what a rail-side trail is expected to look like all the way between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
(Photo — Tim Holmes)
As the much-anticipated project stalled in recent years due to funding shortfalls, a small yet vocal minority has been advocating for removing the rails and building the trail directly on the rail bed. It's time to put those ideas aside and work for what's best for the Adirondack region.
The tracks will remain where they are, and here's why: The Remsen-Lake Placid Corridor is part of the statewide rail corridor system owned by the NYSDOT, which has made it clear that removing the rails is not an option the department is going to consider any time soon.
In a letter dated Sept. 2, 2010, NYSDOT Regional Director Michael Shamma cites the management plan, signed in 1996, which names the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and the New York State Snowmobile Association as primary permit holders for the corridor. The plan is not on any schedule to be revisited, Shamma writes, but if DOT decides to revisit the plan, state agencies, permit holders, communities and other interested parties will be invited to comment. No single community along the corridor has the jurisdiction to remove a section of the rail line. He further adds that the corridor is listed on the state and federal historic registers, "which also has implications regarding its future use." A copy of the letter can be found here: www.adirondack.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/DOT-letter.pdf.
The state's position is unmistakable: The rail corridor remains important to New York's infrastructure. Again, from DOT Regional Director Shamma: "In terms of funding, NYSDOT remains committed to progressing capital improvements that protect the public's investment in the corridor infrastructure."
The next step that demands our attention is not endless debate over a moot point but what needs to be done to rehabilitate the railway. While some among us are having difficulty envisioning a future for the corridor, rail is seeing a renaissance in other parts of the world, most notably in emerging global economic powers such as China, that are installing rail as fast as possible.
Many of us are familiar with the European model - where people bring their bikes on trains, and rental cars are available even at the most rural stops. Data shows more travelers are in search of carless touring options, and the rails-with-trails project is in line with those findings.
According to Adirondack Scenic Railroad President Bill Branson, staff in his office are constantly fielding inquiries from travelers coming from abroad, wondering how they can buy tickets from Utica to Lake Placid. The demand is there, and it's not just hobbyists who are interested in this transportation option. In the next year the Scenic Railroad's southern route will see an expansion to Big Moose, an ideal destination for wilderness excursion trips. In another portion of our region, the new scenic train between Saratoga Springs and North Creek has created new touring opportunities, as well as direct links to New York City and other destinations on Amtrak.
The railroad is not the enemy. Rather, it is the most cost- and energy-efficient mode of motorized land transport on the planet. (For example, the average train uses 2,594 BTU per passenger mile vs. 3,538 BTUs for cars.) Looking beyond recreation, it would be tremendously shortsighted and a great failure of imagination to remove expensive infrastructure on the only rail corridor coming into the heart of the Adirondacks. We can easily envision a future in which gas costs more than $5 a gallon - and where rail becomes a preferred option for getting from place to place. With such an uncertain future, it is completely reasonable to preserve the infrastructure we have in place.
Rehabilitating the tracks has potential to be a high-leverage project, one that has the support of the North Country Chamber of Commerce, which sees the ability to have commercial rail as a way to bolster business opportunities throughout the region. As President Garry Douglas puts it, "Where things move is where prosperity occurs."
The Remsen-Lake Placid rail corridor has the potential to benefit us all. Let's get behind supporting this important asset and work to make the Adirondack region an even better place to live. There is much work we can do together. Let's get to it.
Kate Fish is executive director of the Adirondack North Country Association, based in Saranac Lake, and a member of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council. She lives in Lake Placid.