A couple of years ago, it seemed like the Adirondack Scenic Railroad would chug along forever, with hobbyists and boosters working slowly and steadily to expand the line that now operates between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
But then a group called ARTA – the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates — jumped in and changed the narrative. In short order, they signed up thousands of people who say the corridor from Remsen to Lake Placid should be remade as a multi-use trail.
They cobbled together a unique coalition of greenies, snowmobilers, bicycle enthusiasts and anti-pork advocates (who think government subsidies for the train are a waste) and started making noise.
The response from train advocates and some state officials was blunt: This has already been decided. It's a railroad line and will always be a railroad line. End of conversation.
That view was echoed recently by the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, which concluded in its latest report that funding for rail infrastructure — including the Adirondack tourist train — is a priority.
But it's clear that ARTA struck a nerve. In recent months, town governments along the corridor — most recently Tupper Lake last night – have passed resolutions urging New York to reopen the unit management plan that governs use of the track.
Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Tupper Lake and North Elba have all endorsed a fresh look at the future of the corridor. Some local officials have gone further, deriding the track as a boondoggle and calling for it to be torn up.
Tupper Lake has been the focal point of resistance to that notion, with the "Next Stop Tupper Lake" group — including some town board members — fighting passionately to keep the train, well, on track.
So last night's 3-to-2 vote was a stunner. Town supervisor Roger Amell, in an interview with NCPR, said that he personally prefers that the track be removed in the Tri-Lakes region.
"To keep the snowmobilers, that's a key thing for Tupper Lake," he said. "Unless you have plenty of snow, you can't use the tracks. You have to have at least 18 inches of snow for the tracks [to be covered]."
Train boosters are working to recapture momentum. They plan to hold a trip for local media and officials later this month to highlight the corridor's value as a tourist line, calling it "a celebration of the rails."
That's good outreach, but my sense is that the time has come when railroad boosters will have to engage the debate more broadly, making a better argument for how the train can become a real and sustainable tourism asset.
Big enough, that is, to offset the downsides of a corridor that goes unused most of the year over most of its length.
When it was just ARTA calling for a new direction for the line, train buffs and members of the Regional Economic Development Council could make a reasonable claim that a fresh conversation wasn't warranted.
But now that local government leaders have embraced the debate, it's probably time for everyone — including New York state — to come to the table.