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Reread plan; no need to update it

December 12, 2011
By Tony Goodwin , Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates

In the ongoing debate about the best use of the Adirondack rail corridor, one consistently stated reason for maintaining the status quo has been that it would be years before the unit management plan (UMP) for the corridor could be revised. Speaking as one who actually worked on the plan, I don't think the Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Conservation need to revise the plan; they just need to reread the plan.

As the representative for the Adirondack Ski Touring Council on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the UMP, I observed the planning process as it developed. Starting in January 1992, the CAC held seven meetings during that year before the agencies began the work of actually preparing the UMP.

In advance of the April 1992 meeting, the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society passed a resolution that was forwarded to the CAC's planning team. That resolution said, in part, "ARPS would accept all responsibility for rebuilding the road and track to Class III standard (60 mph passenger train speed) and accept all liability for the railroad at no cost to the state." Apparently accepted at face value at the time, this statement is but one of many optimistic statements by railroad supporters that actual experience has shown to be completely false. The draft UMP released in 1993 said rail operations would be tried but that there would be no state funding for such operations. The final UMP in 1994 left the door open to some state funding. Millions of state dollars later, we still don't have single mile of Class III track, despite the initial promise of 119 miles of such track with no state funding.

Another part of the planning process was a photo log of the corridor, completed in April 1992. At its presentation, the meeting minutes noted that, for a parallel trail, "in some sections the necessary modifications would be too expensive." Consequently, the final plan noted correctly noted that "the potential for the development of an unbroken parallel trail within the Corridor is severely limited."

As initially written in 1993, the draft UMP permitted rail use - provided the operators could come up with the estimated $30 million (later reduced to $17.4 million) to rehabilitate the line. In response to protests from rail supporters that the cost figure was deliberately set too high to prevent rail restoration, the final UMP in 1994 allowed an alternate estimate of rehabilitation costs to be included in the plan. Titled "Economic Analysis of Remsen-Lake Placid Railroad Operations," this study was prepared for the Adirondack North Country Association by Freight Services Incorporated. It set $11 million as the cost to rehabilitate the 119 miles of track to Lake Placid to Class III standards in phases over the course of five years while also estimating the jobs created as each phase was completed. The interim phase (now complete) of rehabbing the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid section was supposed to create 75 jobs. The reality, of course, is that way more than $11 million has been spent just to get some Class II track - and can anyone possibly find those 75 new jobs?

In 2006, rail supporters sought $20 million to expand the tourist operation from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake. I wrote a letter to my elected representatives and the governor's office to protest this appropriation. In due time, I received a reply from Mark Silo, DOT's Region 2 director, based in Utica. His reply said, in part, "Your comments regarding the amount of investment relative to its return in terms of economic development are certainly pertinent and useful as debate regarding the future of the corridor continues." Mr. Silo concluded by saying that "the next few years remain crucial in determining the appropriate long-term strategy for uses along the corridor."

I think it should be clear from the start that railroad use was considered provisional. And despite recent statements that the DOT has no intention of changing the current uses of the corridor, the above letter shows that as recently as 2006 DOT was still evaluating the success (or lack thereof) of rail operations.

From both my experience in assisting in the preparation of the UMP and a reading of the plan as adopted, I do not see any problem in quickly moving to the full recreational use option (Option IV) as stated in the final plan. As written, the final plan did not choose Option IV because supposedly it would not have the same economic benefits as full rail restoration. However, the 17 years of experience since the 1994 adoption of the UMP demonstrate that the railroad has cost the taxpayers way more than initially anticipated and produced far fewer benefits than originally envisioned.

Option IV in the UMP concludes by saying, "(T)his alternative would be implemented if rail-oriented alternatives should prove impracticable." Given that rail use has not achieved anything close to what was promised, I call on DOT to re-evaluate the economic benefit relative to the cost of rail operations - at least those north of Thendara. Annual payments for rail maintenance on this segment should be stopped - an action that does not require any revision to the UMP. The DOT/DEC can then implement, without a wholesale revision to the UMP, the next most desirable option in the UMP - full recreational use without the rails.


Tony Goodwin lives in Keene and is a member of the Steering Committee of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.



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