It's much easier to have an opinion about what to do with our state-owned railroad tracks than to have any power to do it. Many have strong views on the subject, as any regular reader of this page knows, but only handful of government officials have authority.
Among those who do have a little are the five members of the North Elba town council. Mind you, they're pretty small wheels in this engine, but their decision last week to go ahead with building a multi-purpose (bicycle, snowmobile, etc.) trail beside the railroad tracks from Lake Placid to Ray Brook, and then to Saranac Lake, was a big deal.
The board members weren't thrilled about it because they, like many people around here, mostly think the state and federal governments are wasting public funds keeping a tourist train on life support. The trail's the thing, they say, and to rip up the tracks and put the trail in its place would be cheaper, especially if the trail is to be extended to Tupper Lake and points south toward Utica. A world-class bikeway like that would lure large quantities of tourists here, they say, whereas the train doesn't; it just gives visitors something else to do while they're here.
We agree the trail needs to be the top priority now - especially between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, where many thousands of active residents and visitors have been aching for a path like this for a long time. That's why we applaud the North Elba board members for making a good, tough call. They recognized that it had taken a decade to pull together the grant funding, engineering and state agency permits for a trail people wanted badly, and to throw away that work to gamble on a new project would be poor public service.
The easiest way to get a bike path between these two villages would have been for the state Department of Transportation to put one in with a badly needed overhaul of Route 86. But the DOT didn't commit to even repaving that road - one of the busiest non-interstate highways in the Adirondacks, and in terrible shape - until this year.
It was also only this year that the advocates for a railless trail started getting organized. They make a convincing argument, but they had many chances over the last decade to do what they're doing now. Maybe they didn't because the tourist train was new then and people were holding out hope it would be an economic driver. Now it's obvious that it isn't, and probably never will be.
We have editorialized in the past in favor of keeping the tracks, not for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad but for the future, in case oil's rising price and environmental toll make train travel economically viable again. We're less sure about that now, but still, it is too late to change plans on the Sara-Placid railside trail. It'll be a good one, even if the train goes dormant and puts half of this enterprise to waste. There's no flawless way of dealing with this issue.
Meanwhile, it isn't too late - rather, it's the perfect time - for the current debate about the future of the tracks between Saranac Lake and Thendara. Should the taxpayers invest millions so the tourist train can go to Tupper Lake? Would there be enough payback to justify that? If the rails were removed there, would a rough mountain bike trail suffice, or would we need a more finished trail to draw serious numbers of visitors? Removing any rails would probably kill the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, however, since its trains are wintered in Utica and roll over the entire railroad twice a year.
The number of people who have joined the debate is kind of amazing, and wonderful. In a democratic republic, it's important to have large numbers of people trying to sort out a knotty public issue.
This one is certainly knotty; anyone who says it's simple is either naive or trying to sway you. While for many it's an easy choice in theory, in practice there are all kinds of details that complicate things for either side of the divide.
It's also very public. These railroad tracks are the property of the people of New York, and they run right through the middle of the Adirondack woods, waters and villages. While expansion of train service would have some value, the rails also take up real estate that could be put to other good uses.
This issue cuts across normal ideological lines. Snowmobile advocate Jim McCulley, a constant critic of environmentalists, has teamed up with staunch environmentalist Dick Beamish, hotelier Art Lussi and various others to remove the rails. On the other side are economic development groups, historical preservationists, most of our federal and state representatives, and pretty much the entire Tupper Lake establishment.
So far the rhetoric has been too polarized for our liking. Each side wants to win outright, without compromise. We hope the debate evolves into more of a discussion. Instead of haranguing each other, both sides should publicly face up to the daunting problems that loom before each of them. Then, down from their soap boxes, hopefully they can get together and work out something to present to the DOT as the will of the Adirondack people.
DOT officials need to pay attention to this important discussion.
In Washington, Democrats are pushing railroad funds while Republicans block bike path money - points for the train. Yet this railroad is no inter-city connector to compensate for the air-travel crunch. It's a long, lonely route through wild forests to a sparsely populated area seen in the tourism industry as a "rubber tire" destination. Could it be a "steel rail" destination again?
New York Central abandoned this line in 1965, shortly before going bankrupt. The public is stuck with it, and so far our public servants haven't developed a use for it that satisfies a critical mass of the public. Let's get together and give them some guidance, and hope they listen.