There is a way to have both a scenic railroad AND a system of trails that could attract tourists to the Adirondacks, whether they want to hike, bike, snowmobile or simply see the beauty of the region through the window of a historic rail car.
A few North Country residents who truly care about the environmental and economic health of the area have formed a group they call TRAC, Trail & Rail Action Committee. They have submitted a viable plan to develop existing trail infrastructure into a system that would enable outdoor enthusiasts to travel by snowmobile, bike or on foot through the Park, while not removing any section of railway.
Their proposed route has been presented to New York state officials for review and input. It seems to solve the controversy over whether the tracks need to be removed or restored. It would actually be more cost-effective to do both than to remove the rails and create the trail. According to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, if the railroad removes the rails, building a trail could cost up to $1 million per mile.* Even if that figure could be cut by two-thirds and still create the "world-class" trail that Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates proposes, it would still cost substantially more than the $239,000 per mile cost of restoring the tracks. (Remember the TRAC option?)
ARTA is quick to remind everyone that its effort is supported by 12,000-plus signatures on a petition. Last year the railroad asked its passengers if they would sign a postcard endorsing the restoration of the tracks and the development of a trail. Thirty-seven thousand signatures were delivered to state Department of Transportation offices.** That's nearly triple the number on ARTA petitions. The postcards prove both support for multiple use of the corridor and that the railroad supports the solution that allows the highest return on the state's investment in the corridor.
ARTA insists that the unit management plan that governs the rail corridor be reopened. They know that this will take years, overburden the state agencies involved and leave the taxpayers with a hefty price tag. But their refusal to consider any alternatives leaves them no choice. In fact, their position is outlined in a recent article in Adirondack Life: "If the plan isn't reopened we will use every economic, electoral, public relations and legal means at our disposal to ensure democracy and due process are served." In a democracy, our 37,000 would trump their 12,000 every day.
This is not about democracy. This about the special interests of the nine or 10 people who have written more than 100 letters and columns demanding that the state destroy a transportation asset. TRAC and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad have been working toward a solution. The vocal minority that advocates the destruction of a registered historic railroad has a "We get it all - you get nothing" view of the corridor. And if the UMP is reopened and the decision is made to prohibit development in order to protect the environment, nothing is what we all get.
The UMP was reviewed last fall. ARTA is unwilling to wait for the results of work done just a few months ago but is demanding a process that will take years. Work could begin on the existing tracks and trails as early as this season. But ARTA's veiled threats could delay any progress for years to come. (Remember the TRAC option?)
TRAC has shown that it is possible for trail and train supporters to "win" this debate. But the real winners will be the taxpayers and business owners in the region when we can attract both groups of tourists to the area.
It's time for ARTA to prove that they truly advocate recreational trails in the Adirondacks and not simply the destruction of the tracks that connect Utica to Lake Placid. Remember and IMPLEMENT the TRAC option!
Gene Falvo lives in Utica and is a board member of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.
* New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, "A practical guide to converting rails to trails," nysparks.com/recreation/trails/documents/guidetoconvertingrailstotrails.pdf
** Editor's note: DOT officials say they have a large box of these postcards they received, but they have not counted them all yet.