In the spirit of compromise with those whose heart is set on maintaining the tourist train on the 9-mile stretch of rail corridor between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, let's consider meeting each other halfway.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates has, since its start, insisted that building a parallel path from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake is a waste of money, an immediate and future drain on North Elba taxpayers, and an environmentally unsound proposition. We have not changed our views. But if it can really be built and the grants are in place, as the railroad boosters claim, let's go for it, but soon!
Our goal remains the establishment of a 90-mile trail through the heart of the Adirondacks, connecting Lake Placid and Old Forge. Such a trail will attract thousands of bicyclers, runners and snowmobilers from far and wide. It will provide a major amenity and economic boost for the many communities along the way. So if the railroad interests have the means of building the side-by-side trail from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake to connect to the next 81-mile trail, ARTA will support that option.
But ARTA's support comes with certain conditions. We insist that the rail corridor that runs between Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and Old Forge no longer be held hostage to railroad interests. It should become the Great Adirondack Recreation Trail. On this unused stretch of rusting tracks and rotting ties, it would not be possible, by any stretch of the imagination, to build a side-by-side recreation trail - the terrain, wetlands, causeways, widening logistics, permits needed and cost all make this a non-starter. This corridor has been unused for rail service for 40 years, with virtually no likelihood of the promised Class III service ever being restored or financially viable.
A second condition in supporting the parallel trail between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake is that the funding be secured, i.e., the various grants consolidated and the matching funds raised, and that the engineering bids go out by the end of this year. We understand that the grants will evaporate anyway if this does not happen. And with the Old Forge-to-Saranac Lake tracks removed for the creation of the trail, a third condition is that the tourist train now operating on this section be stored and serviced in sheds constructed where the train actually operates. Otherwise the train operators will continue to monopolize this line with a twice-a-year trip to run rolling stock down to Utica in the fall and back up in the spring. This semi-annual journey precludes use of the entire 81-mile rail bed for anything else, including acceptable snowmobiling as, despite the snowmobilers' five-month lease of the corridor, exposed rails cut the available season in half.
If the train operators can meet these conditions, ARTA will drop its insistence that this 9-mile section of track be replaced with a recreation path. We are proposing this compromise with a full understanding that the real gem of the corridor is the 81 miles from Saranac Lake to Old Forge, a rail bed that could easily be converted into the most outstanding "wilderness bikeway" in the United States. This trail will attract an influx of tourists to Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and other hamlets along the way, and not only during the warmer months when bicyclists will flood into the area. For example, Tupper Lake will be a huge beneficiary every winter when Old Forge, the snowmobile capital of the Adirondacks, is linked by a smooth, safe trail to the communities to the north, and to the hundreds of miles of additional snowmobile trails in Franklin and St. Lawrence counties.
But if we remove the tracks on this 81-mile section, won't that eliminate the future possibility of rail service? Not at all. The rail bed will still be there, perfectly preserved - in fact, better preserved than now. In the unlikely event that enough people will someday want to once again ride from Utica through the Adirondacks or will choose to ship freight up that path, the rails could be restored on an improved surface. I say "unlikely" as both freight (which ended in 1972) and passenger service (shuttered in 1965) failed for lack of interest and profits, and times have only lessened the need for either. There is zero evidence that extending the current tourist train would make it self-sufficient or bring comparable benefits to the people and businesses along the way.
What counts, for ARTA, is converting this sadly underutilized rail line into a recreational trail second to none in this country. Our entire motivation is to bring more jobs and revenue to our local economies in an attractive, environmentally friendly way. To make this happen, it's time to stop squabbling and seize a wonderful opportunity that has been staring us in the face for so many years. It's time to work together to add a new recreational dimension to the Adirondack Park.
Lee Keet lives ion Lake Colby in Saranac Lake and is a member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates Board of Directors.