The last few months have been complicated for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Bill Branson, head of the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society, says his group has tried to remain above the fray as debate swirls about the tourist train project.
“We chose a while ago to take the high road and be above the name calling and the misinformation,” he says.
But this week, Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates announced that it had gathered more than 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for the railroad tracks from Old Forge to Lake Placid to be torn up and replaced with a multi-use trail.
Perhaps more importantly, seven local governments along the rail corridor have now passed resolutions questioning Branson’s vision of an excursion train — with some town, village and county leaders calling point-blank for the tracks to be torn up immediately.
Train advocates still have a lot of supporters, including powerful groups like the region’s Chamber of Commerce and the Adirondack North Country Association.
But in an interview this week, Branson acknowledged that his group hasn’t been visible enough in the debate. “We don’t have an attack organization or a defense organization,” he said.
“We don’t have volunteers who really want to mix it up with their neighbors in the community. It’s hard for us to respond.”
It appears that Branson understands that this approach hasn’t worked. He said his group recognizes that many locals are skeptical about the tourism railroad’s future, after decades of delay and slow progress.
The current plan for reviving the railroad was approved nearly a quarter century ago, and much of the track remains in disrepair.
“They’re not wrong in what they’re saying,” Branson said. “Whatever is happening is happening in small bites.”
Part of the problem is that train advocates, including those within the state Department of Transportation, think removing the tracks seems inconceivable — or “crazy,” as Branson describes it.
They see slow, steady progress toward a vision of revived rail transport that could one day include cargo trains and regular passenger service into the heart of the Adirondacks.
But that’s clearly not the way it looks to a wide swath of the general public, or to local government leaders.
I suspect that train boosters will have to make a more convincing argument or run the risk of watching their support erode even further.
(A lot of smart people disagree with me. Kate Fish, head of the Adirondack North Country Association, and a passionate supporter of the train, calls the whole debate about the rail corridor’s future “a bit of a distraction.”)
Fortunately, the railroad is currently developing a public business plan, which Branson says will be available soon.
The document will include information about how much state of New York funding would be needed to move the project forward, along with specific claims and information about what an expanded tourism railroad might do for the Park’s economy.
Providing those numbers and a detailed vision for where the tourism train project goes next, will be a hugely helpful addition to the conversation.
One big question is the future of a proposed Pullman car overnight excursion that would take passengers from New York City to Lake Placid, which was announced this fall to great fanfare.
But there have been few details offered for how long that project would take to launch — speculation has ranged from two to ten years — how much it would cost taxpayers, and what the benefits would be for communities along the rail corridor.
I have no idea who will, or should, win the Great Adirondack Train Debate. But I think it’s undeniable that, welcome or not by train boosters, that debate is well underway, it’s serious, and not going away any time soon.
Next month, I have a full article about the debate in the Adirondack Explorer magazine. And in the coming days, NCPR will also air an interview with one of ARTA’s founders about their vision for a recreational trail.