Brian Mann recently wrote (The In Box, NCPR news blog, May 23) that there are "very cool, passionate, community-minded people" on both sides of the rail-trail debate. I subscribe to that view. I believe that the increasingly bitter side arguments (Are there alternate bike paths? Will new freight possibilities arise? Is Pullman service the rail savior? Are the costs and economic impacts projected by either side real? Do trail advocates have a secret agenda? Could rails be put back if taken up even temporarily?) are dividing those community-minded people when they should be working together.
If the facts supported a restoration of train service and a majority of citizens wanted it (and wanted to pay for it), I would campaign for that solution. Really. If side-by-side rail and trail operations could be created along the entire corridor, or even just from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake, and someone would fund it, I would campaign for that, too. My belief that the former is unaffordable and unsustainable, and that the latter is impossible is not something we should be debating further. Too much has been said and written already, and the arguments are coming round and round again.
We need a way to resolve the issues. And as Brian pointed out in his blog, the solution rests with the state.
We need to stop fighting and focus all of our energies on getting the state to do what it should have done and promised to do 12 years ago: That is, develop a plan for the corridor. The plan put in place for 1996 to 2001 did not turn out as expected. The first five-year "marketing period" for rail restoration expired in 2001, with 81 of the 90 miles between Old Forge and Lake Placid left unused. This was not the plan. "Viable rail service" has never materialized. That 81-mile stretch, through some of the most beautiful country in the Northeast, has not had regular train service now for 41 years.
Under the 1995 management plan, the train operator was expected to restore full rail service. Eighteen years is long enough to show that it could not and cannot do so without major taxpayer assistance. But tax dollars cannot flow to corridor restoration, whether for train service or for recreational conversion, without the corridor plan changing. So if train advocates expect public funding to get trains back on the tracks, they should want the state to do its job and reopen the corridor management plan. This would be a prerequisite to seeking any state or federal funding.
The snowmobilers now have an annual five-month lease to use the corridor, and their use adds an estimated $23 million per year to our local economies. They would like the unused rails removed so their sleds can travel without damage for more of the year. But they note that if rail service were to be restored, their use of the corridor would end. The end of snowmobiling on the corridor would make the rail-trail decision more complex since that $23 million (and the additional $20-plus million that the snowmobilers say would flow into our communities in the winter with rail removal) is too big to ignore.
The fair-weather trail people also want their day in court. They feel that the region's economy would benefit mightily and the local population would gain a wonderful amenity if that corridor was used for recreation. They are convinced that lots of hikers, bikers, walkers, joggers, birders, young families, senior citizens, handicapped folks and others will flock to a world-class amenity like their proposed Adirondack Rail Trail. They have put forward studies to bolster their claims, studies that the train advocates dismiss as biased. But how will the truth be known?
Only the state, the ultimate arbiter of which uses its management areas can be put to, can resolve the issue and let the next step - funding the solution - take shape. We all should want the state to do what it claimed was to be done every five years, starting in 2001. Both sides should be pressing Albany to reopen the management plan and finally decide - with full public debate and the best factual input that can be assembled - what the right solution for this invaluable asset should be.
Almost everyone agrees that if sections of the corridor are not restored for train service, they should not be left unused. This is what the state decreed in 1995 and the the independent Camoin study reaffirmed in 2011: The status quo is unacceptable. We either need to have train service restored or put the corridor to some better use rather than letting it continue to deteriorate.
So why don't both sides agree on the best way to lobby our state legislators and the governor to make the long-overdue corridor review happen immediately? Why don't both sides stop HARANGUING each other and accept Brian Mann's judgment that both camps are made up of "very cool, passionate, community-minded people" who could, if they worked together, get this resolved in a dispassionate, democratic way.
Speaking for the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, on whose board I serve, once the management plan is reviewed, we will honor the result. Speaking personally, I will support and work for whatever the review produces. Unless there is something that has escaped me, I cannot see why everyone would not support this essential next step and let the other arguments be carefully weighed in the forum that the review process for the management plan will provide.
I invite both sides to create a delegation to call on Gov. Cuomo, along with our state senator and Assembly members, to make the review of the corridor management plan a top priority.
Lee Keet lives on Lake Colby in Saranac Lake and is a member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates Board of Directors.