TUPPER LAKE - The village and town both decided in the last week to support a request for $15.2 million to rehabilitate the railroad tracks between Big Moose and Saranac Lake.
The Adirondack Rail Preservation Society, which runs the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, completed earlier this year a business plan to determine what it will take to run passenger trains all the way through the corridor from Lake Placid to Utica, said ASR board member Al Dunham.
"We've always wanted to rehab it, but we've been not able to find a good, strong funding source," Dunham said.
Tourist trains currently run between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, and a recently completed portion extended the southern portion of the run from Utica to Big Moose.
The rail bed is the subject of polarizing controversy among residents along the corridor, with the ASR looking to rehabilitate the rail throughout the entire path and create trails alongside it, while the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates want to see the rails ripped up in the currently unused part of the corridor and a trail installed.
The Tupper Lake town and village boards recently passed controversial resolutions asking the state to open up the corridor's unit management plan, which rail advocates fear would revert the rail to a trail.
Dunham is on an ad hoc committee with several Tri-Lakes locals and a few people from the southern end of the railroad who have been planning the future of the railroad for the last six months or so.
Dunham said that although estimates in the past have varied widely as to the cost of fixing up the remaining rails, the engineers ASR worked with on the business plan are confident that the $15.2 million will be enough to bring the rails from Big Moose to Saranac Lake up to Class II standards, which would let it go 30 to 35 mph. Currently when trains are brought along that track, the speed limit is 5 mph.
"We're pretty comfortable," Dunham said. "We've got a good plan."
It would mainly pay for rail bed rehabilitation, including ties and ballast - the most expensive part, Dunham said - grading in some areas, and a few curved rails that need to be replaced, though most of the rails are still in good shape, he said.
The ASR, through the Adirondack North Country Association, is applying for federal grant money to pay for the project. Dunham gave a quick presentation to town board members on the topic last week, getting them to agree to send a letter of support to endorse the application. The village board decided to send a similar letter of support at their meeting this week, though no ASR board member was there to tell village trustees about it.
The Strategic Transportation Enhancement Program grant would give the ASR federal Department of Transportation money, funneled through the state.
Dunham said the application is with the state now, and if it's chosen from the pool of projects at that level, it will move on to the federal DOT to compete with projects from across the country. At the town board meeting, he called it a long shot but said it's a good application.
"We think it looks pretty good," Dunham said. "Our business plan is pretty strong."
Dunham told the Enterprise that ASR only had about a week to put together the grant application, but if they had more time, they probably would have sought out partners like the town or village of Tupper Lake to try to add a trail element to the proposal. The grant funding is for "multi-modal" transportation corridors, and ASR envisions the rail corridor to include both rail and trails in the future, but this grant would only go to the rail work.
"We could easily have made this a $30 million project, which would have made the application even stronger," Dunham said. "We're not in the trail business. We can get you to the trail."
Part of the ASR's business plan is to give passengers access to trails along the corridor, so they can bring a kayak or bicycle on the train, get dropped off, then picked up after they're done. Dunham said that's already happening in the southern portion of the railroad, and if more tracks are opened on the northern end, it would give people access to underused trails.
Dunham said he understands that people have gotten frustrated waiting for the railroad to get rehabilitated. Former Gov. George Pataki left $5 million for the work when he left office, but that money was reallocated under Eliot Spitzer's administration, and since then, the railroad hasn't been able to get any significant funding. Dunham said that's unfortunate.
"It's like a major highway, but they've just let it sit," Dunham said.
He said there's more support for the railroad rehabilitation in the Utica area, where people see the train as an opportunity to connect to the Adirondack wilderness.
If this grant funding doesn't come through, Dunham that it's not the last resort. He said the ASR is working with state and federal officials to find other opportunities for the corridor.
"We're not just putting all our eggs in one basket," Dunham said.
The key is having the business plan in place, he said. Now the ASR has the information it needs to seek other grant funding and other collaborations.
"We know how to do it now," Dunham said. "This application was an opportunity to test that."
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.