It's a blustery spring day as Carl Knoch trudges along the train tracks just outside of Lake Placid.
Knoch, manager of trail development for the Northeast office of the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, is dressed for the weather, sporting a dark blue overcoat and waterproof pants. Joining him on his 9-mile trek to Saranac Lake are Tony Goodwin and Jim McCulley, members of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates' steering committee. Members of ARTA hope to remove the train tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and build a year-round, multi-use recreational trail.
"What we're doing is we're going to walk the corridor between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, to take a look at some of the challenges that will be involved in building a parallel trail to the existing rail corridor," Knoch said.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates members Jim McCulley, left, and Tony Goodwin, center, as well as Carl Knoch, walk the railroad tracks in Lake Placid. Knoch, manager of trail development for the Northeast office of the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, inspected the rail corridor to determine the challenges of constructing a parallel trail being planned by the town of North Elba.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
Knoch said he was looking at things like bridges, road crossings, how close people's homes were to the rail corridor and whether the project can maintain some separation between the rails and the parallel trail.
"Kind of a recon of the corridor on a literally on-the-ground basis," he said.
The town of North Elba has received about $3.2 million in federal funds for the Pathway Project, as well a recently renewed permit from the state Adirondack Park Agency. The aim is simple: Build a multi-use recreational trail next to the railroad corridor between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.
Town officials readily admit they would prefer to see the tracks, which are used by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to operate a tourist train, removed in favor of a recreational trail.
Meanwhile, officials with the state Department of Transportation, which owns the travel corridor, have repeatedly stated they are pleased with its current use and have no plans to remove the tracks.
"Jim (McCulley) has always said to me the rails should go, and it would make a lot more sense if the rails were gone - well obviously it would," said North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi.
But Politi said he's had numerous conversations with DOT officials and is confident the agency won't change its position anytime soon.
"They intend to maintain their jurisdiction over that transportation corridor," he said, "because it's only one of two, other than the roadway, that goes through state land that nobody has jurisdiction over other than them."
Former town Councilman Chuck Damp, of Ray Brook, has been helping the town with the project, and Politi said Tim Holmes of Saranac Lake, who has worked on plans involving other bike paths, is also helping as an unpaid consultant.
The town is preparing to hire an engineer to design the recreational trail. The town received a list of 31 DOT-approved engineering firms earlier this year, Politi said. That list has been trimmed down to five, town Councilman Jack Favro said at a recent board meeting. The town is currently waiting for those firms to submit additional information about the project, and then officials will be prepared to hire one.
"I think it's still rolling good; it's still doing well," Favro said of the project.
Once engineers draw up the plans, the town will be able to put the project itself out to bid.
The town plans the project to be done in two phases: one from Old Military Road in Lake Placid to the Scarface Mountain trailhead in Ray Brook, and a second from the trailhead to Brandy Brook Avenue in Saranac Lake.
Damp said the total project, including the local match, is about $4.2 million. He said some of the local match can come from in-kind services.
The APA permit allows for a multi-modal, multi-season, shared-used recreational trail. The path itself can be 8 to 10 feet wide and must be set back from the rail by between 6.5 and 11 feet. If the path is less than 11 feet from the train tracks, a 3.5-foot tall fence must separate the railroad from the trail.
According to the APA permit, which was renewed in 2010, the project would impact 0.71 acres of wetlands. The permit was approved on several conditions. The town must do the following:
-Install a silt fence along the trail.
-Stabilize exposed soils.
-Cut chemically treated lumber over tarps.
-Provide off-site waste disposal.
-Wash heavy equipment to mitigate the spread of invasive species.
-Monitor and report on wetland mitigation.
The permit allows for a range of recreational activities, including hiking, skiing, biking and snowmobiling.
Knoch and members of ARTA are skeptical that North Elba can achieve its goal of building out the 8.2-mile parallel trail with the current funding.
About 3 miles outside of Lake Placid, Knoch stops to inspect a section of the railroad that has wetlands extending for about a quarter of a mile, with chest-deep water on one side and knee-deep water on the other.
Knoch said dumping fill in certain areas is expensive, and a lot of fill would be needed to bring the path up to grade. Building a boardwalk, he said, would be even more expensive.
"Cost of a boardwalk? $1,000 per foot," Knoch said. "You've got running water through here; you've got standing water. You can't fill that in, regardless of the permits you have. So you're going to have to build a boardwalk."
"I mean yeah, you can do it," McCulley said of building boardwalks, "if money is no object. But money is an object. It's something that has to get factored in."
Upon completing his hike, Knoch said his big takeaway was that the corridor passed through a lot of wetlands, and that to preserve the wetlands, a significant amount of boardwalk would need to be constructed. The trail is permitted to be built on the north side of the tracks, so it would be on the right side for users traveling from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake.
Knoch said it would help with costs if the town and DOT could "come to a mutually agreed-upon understanding of being able to cross the rail in a number of places to get to more solid ground that would eliminate the necessity of building a boardwalk through wetlands."
Another big question raised by McCulley is the presence of power lines next to the railroad, but Politi said he's spoken with officials from National Grid and it doesn't appear that the poles pose a problem for the project.
Then there's the annual upkeep cost associated with the trail. Politi said the town hasn't looked that far ahead yet.
"My guess is there will be costs," he said. "It's like a road. You've got to maintain it."