In 1972, Charles Montooth, a transportation consultant and member of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Taliesin Architects, said, "We should look to the future by saving and improving what we already have in place." In that spirit, there have been several efforts by previous Adirondack community leaders to preserve the Remsen-Lake Placid railroad corridor for its original purpose: to be a railroad.
In reaction to Penn Central's attempt to remove the tracks in December of 1973, Adirondack Park Agency Executive Director Richard Persico explained, "Along with all pertinent environmental factors full consideration must also be given to the possible adverse economic impact of a regional project on those who live and gain their livelihood in the Adirondack Park." Later in the same month, Bill Curran, spokesman for the APA, said, "The very nature of the energy crisis puts a very different perspective on railroads than a year ago. The line could be a great source of mass transportation to the Adirondack area."
The Adirondack Council has also clearly stated its position on the importance of maintaining this corridor as a railroad numerous times. In 1981 the Council requested the New York State Department of Transportation maintain the line until a new operator could be found. In 1982, the Council stated it was "fighting to preserve" the 122-mile corridor as a railroad and rebuked previous efforts to dismantle the tracks, stating it was "a line that in the future could be an economic lifeline to the Park." Ten years later, the Council gained a seat on the Citizens Advisory Committee and said it "supports train use on the entire line and recreational use."
Contrast these visionary ideals for preserving this unique railroad to the anti-railroad campaign that is ongoing by the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, especially by those directors representing the snowmobile interests. Keep in mind the "Foamers," as rail enthusiasts are disrespectfully referred to, also travel to railroad attractions. According to Trains magazine's guide to tourist lines and museums, only California and Pennsylvania have more railroad-related tourism venues than New York state.
I found the Guest Commentary article written by ARTA director and Snowmobile Club President Jim McCulley not only misleading but hypocritical as well, as he framed the Adirondack Scenic Railroad as a taxpayer-dependent entity but omitted key information. ARTA's multiple Facebook pages display numerous articles of public funding for trail projects. Even using his skewed context of funding the railroad, 17 years of support for the rail corridor would cost less than $2.2 million per year. In seven years of recent public support for a single trail organization on the Great Allegheny Passage, more than $18.8 million was received, averaging more than $2.69 million per year. Between 1992 and 2007, 800 million federal dollars were dedicated to recreational trails, including rail-trail development. And though I applaud the personal accomplishments of extreme cyclist Floyd Lampart, I disagree out-of-state opinions such as my own are invalid, specifically because of those dollars I have contributed to the U.S. Treasury that end up spreading gravel on the bike paths you travel.
The federal government has a vested interest in preserving railroad corridors, and this is evident in the statutes that enable a railroad to be "railbanked." The term essentially means "not to abandon," and the railroad retains the right to reactivate service under the law. The mission of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was to identify and assist in preserving corridors where abandonment was imminent. This is not the case with the Remsen-Lake Placid line. Because the RTC has assisted in promoting the dismantling of this corridor, the mission and funding of the RTC should be reviewed at the federal level. Research has identified a number of similar active railroad corridors that are currently experiencing the same aggressive tactics as used by ARTA, following the script of the RTC and a shift from preserving to dismantling.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society and the NYSDOT have followed the course of action as set forth in the 1996 unit management plan. The work is not complete, and preservation is ongoing at a bargain price. In fact, NYSDOT recognized, "The continuation of the current practice of management through 30-day permits would jeopardize the goal of full rail service development." So what is the holdup? Even if the UMP is reopened, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad should immediately receive a minimum five-year lease to assist in reaching that goal.
As for the environment, consider this statement from the 1996 UMP: "A train has the ability to show an otherwise remote area of the Adirondacks to large numbers of people without the environmental impacts usually associated with those numbers." Contrast the previous wisdom with the following excerpt from "Snowmobiling in the Adirondack Park" (Elizabeth Baker and Eric Buthmann, St. Lawrence University, Department of Biology, April 27, 2005): "An unregulated 2-stroke snowmobile can emit as much hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides as almost 100 cars. Engine data from the California Air Resources Board shows that seven hours of two-stroke engine use produces more smog-forming pollution than a modern car creates over 100,000 miles driven. Snowmobiles create up to 1,000 times more carbon monoxide pollution than a car." Where is the protest from the environmentalists? ARTA-Snowmobile director McCulley envisions 100,000 state-registered sleds ripping up and down the corridor from Thendara to Lake Placid; do the math on your hydrocarbons.
It would be easy for NYSDOT, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and community leadership to bow to the political pressure asserted by an IRS 501(c)3 organization like ARTA; it is far more difficult to actually perform in the appointed leadership role. This railroad line is one of only two active rail corridors in the Adirondack Park, and they are hardly redundant. Future reactivation and rebuilding would be nearly impossible, judging from the current debate. The Surface Transportation Board will have to consider any request for abandonment and railbanking of the rail corridor. Suppliers and businesses that receive revenue from the railroad operation need to send hard-copy letters in opposition to the potential change in corridor status to the STB, and copy your elected officials.
James E. Falcsik lives in Irwin, Pennsylvania.
Trains magazine guide to tourist railroads and museums, May 2014