After plenty of prodding, state officials have decided to revisit the management plan for the much-debated Adirondack railroad corridor between Lake Placid and Remsen.
In a press release issued Thursday, Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens announced that the unit management plan and environmental impact statement for the 119-mile corridor will be reviewed by their agencies "to assess (its) natural and physical resources in an effort to identify its best public and economic use."
The announcement comes amid a contentious and protracted debate over the corridor between those who want to see the current rail service expanded with trails built alongside it, and those who want to remove the rails and convert the corridor into a multi-use, year-round recreational trail.
"The communities, as you know, have been weighing in, and residents have been weighing in and asking us to take another look at it," DOT spokesman Beau Duffy told the Enterprise. "That directly led to us and DEC taking another look and saying we'll reopen the UMP."
The existing UMP allows for the operation of a tourist train, which is run now seasonally between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society and the Adirondack North Country Association, among others, want to see regular rail service on the line, although the stretch of tracks between Old Forge and Saranac Lake would need major upgrades for that to happen.
The Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates has been pushing for removal of the tracks and the creation of a multi-use trail on the corridor. It submitted a formal request last month to DEC, DOT and the Adirondack Park Agency asking for the UMP to be reopened. The current UMP was completed in 1996 and is required to be revisited every five years, but that hasn't happened.
ARTA board President Joe Mercurio said he was "delighted" to hear that the state will finally be revising the plan.
"We can argue back and forth until the cows come home, but the only way this is going to really be decided is at a hearing that's organized and run by the state," Mercurio said Thursday. "This is an opportunity to give all sides a chance to be heard fairly and honestly."
If the review process results in a decision to maintain or enhance the existing train service on the corridor, Mercurio said ARTA would honor and support that.
"I'm just happy it's finally got to this point," Mercurio said. "At least there's some hope it will be resolved in my lifetime, one way or the other.
Bill Branson of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society said his organization doesn't think the UMP needs to be reviewed.
"We believe the decision that was made the first time around was the correct decision," Branson said. "Having said that, we're enthusiastic about this and we look forward to participating. I think all the back and forth is a waste of energy and everything else. It's annoying, and if this is how the state wants to resolve it, that's fine. It needs resolution."
In a prepared statement, ANCA President Steve Erman said his organization is "hopeful that an update of (the) plan, prepared after significant research and public input, will again result in a preferred management option calling for rail retention, improvement and use, as well as the development of a community connector recreational trail."
In addition to ARTA, several municipalities and one property owners group along the corridor had passed resolutions asking the state to reopen the UMP: the villages of Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake; the towns of Tupper Lake, Webb and Harrietstown; and the Beaver River Property Owners Association. Others have asked for the state to remove the rails, including the village of Lake Placid, the towns of North Elba, Piercefield and Colton, St. Lawrence County and the New York State Snowmobile Association.
North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi called reopening the UMP "a good idea" and "a long time coming."
However, Politi said it will complicate the town's effort to get a multi-use recreational trail built alongside the tracks between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, a project that's been in the works for 10 years. Politi said the project, the first phase of which (from Lake Placid to Ray Brook) has APA approval, was already in jeopardy because the Army Corps of Engineers is now requiring the town to get a federal wetlands permit. There isn't enough time to go through the process of getting that permit before the town's grant monies for the project expire, he said.
"We will probably have to see what our options are but I gotta believe that we're probably going to have to stop moving forward with the rail-trail until we find out whether it's logical or possible to get an extension on the money," he said. "And if there is a possibly the unit management plan would change things, wouldn't it be prudent to also wait on that?"
Politi said he's hopeful the project's funding agencies will extend their deadlines, given that the state is now reopening the UMP process.
The joint DOT-DEC press release says the current effort to review the UMP will take into account "issues that have developed over the past 20 years by providing an opportunity for all interests to be part of the process and comment on future transportation and recreation opportunities along the travel corridor."
DOT and DEC will work with the APA and schedule public scoping meetings to help determine what issues and factors will be considered in the environmental review. Both agencies will then prepare an amended draft UMP/EIS laying out a vision for the future of the corridor. The draft will be made available for public review and comment prior to developing a final plan that will be considered by the APA, and ultimately approved by commissioners McDonald and Martens.
Duffy said the UMP review process will likely begin this summer and take approximately a year to complete.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.