If you’re a reader of the Adirondack Almanack blog or the Adirondack Daily Enterprise’s letter-to-the-editor column, you know that there is a deep, nasty and and apparently intractable debate underway over the future of the rail corridor that stretches from Old Forge to Lake Placid.
The facts are pretty simple.
On the one side is a group of very cool, passionate, community-minded people who believe that a tourism train can be a real economic asset for the mountain communities along the rail corridor.
They have lots of good ideas and their ranks include some very thoughtful and influential people, including the leaders of the Adirondack North Country Association and Historic Saranac Lake.
Weighing against their position is the fact that this experiment has been underway for a couple of decades and has produced few tangible results.
There is a debate over just how many tourists are drawn to the area by the excursion train which now operates between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, but it’s certainly not a cornerstone attraction.
As a consequence, some locals — including elected local governments along the corridor — have lost faith in the idea.
Towns, villages and counties have voted overwhelmingly to have the state revise the plan for the corridor, or to simply tear the tracks up.
On the other side of the debate is a group of very cool, passionate, community-minded people who believe that the tourism train is a dud and a government-funded boondoggle that should be replaced by a multi-use recreation trail.
This group has a lot of good ideas and their ranks include equally thoughtful and influential people.
Weighing against their position is the fact that the train project has been underway for a long time, it’s a “work in progress” and a lot of good people are emotionally and institutionally invested in making the train work.
The organizers of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates — the group pushing hardest for removal of the rails — have come to be seen by many of their critics in the railroad community as uncompromising spoilers and party-poopers who don’t respect the region’s history.
Despite all the vitriol and harsh words, the situation is, in some ways, even worse than most people realize. This is one of those horrible North Country moments where there are no villains, no good guys and no bad guys.
This is a conflict where two well-meaning groups have wildly different, completely incompatible plans for a single, important public asset.
Fortunately, there is a mechanism for resolving the conflict. The state’s Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency are long overdue to update the management plan for the rail corridor.
There is an established process in place for fact-finding, public hearings and planning that is specifically designed to reach some kind of closure in clashes of this kind.
Instead, the state has lingered on the sidelines, leaving everyone in limbo while tempers rise and rhetoric grows more harsh.
The Albany Times-Union earlier this month wrote a lead editorial, endorsing the idea that a full state planning process for the rail corridor is long overdue.
This kind of planning process would require both sides to come forward with their best possible plans for revitalizing the corridor as a tourism asset.
Broad assertions, hopeful claims and emotional jabs would be replaced by a clear sense of what the best possible next steps might be.
Train boosters, for their part, would be forced to grapple with the fact that, outside their pool of core supporters, their credibility is deeply strained by so many years of taxpayer investment, producing relatively modest activity and unfulfilled plans.
A new, clear-eyed development plan for the railroad might ease some of that skepticism.
Meanwhile, trail advocates would have to prove that their idea is affordable, appealing and practical enough to displace the work, investment and passion of train boosters who have given heart and soul to this project for so many years.
They would have to show state officials that they’re prepared not just to make a negative argument about the train, but equipped to actually make the trail a reality.
During this process, the could also clarify many unanswered questions.
If a trail is built, could the railroad corridor be preserved as a “rail bank” to be turned back into a functioning railroad should the need ever arise in the future, as some have argued it might?
If a train project is maintained, what do transportation experts in Albany believe refurbishment would cost? And is the state willing to commit a sizable portion of those dollars? If so, on what timeline?
The bottom line is that sometimes even good neighbors need fair-minded, independent referees to help them with disputes — or they stop being good neighbors.
In the rail-trail debate, it’s time for the state to blow the whistle and step into the ring.