Posts Tagged ‘railstrails’

Why we’re asking these thorny questions about the Adk Railroad

NCPR's coverage of the rail-trail debate comes as New York state is gathering public comments about the future of the rail corridor.  (Photo:  Brian Mann)

NCPR’s coverage of the rail-trail debate comes as New York state is gathering public comments about the future of the rail corridor. Photo: Brian Mann

The last couple of weeks I’ve had a lot of conversations — on the phone, via email, in person, and on social media — with supporters of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad about the fairness of NCPR’s reporting on the rail-trail debate.

Our latest story appeared Wednesday morning.

The concerns fall into a couple of broad categories.  Firstly, some folks are worried by the fact that this public radio station has prominent supporters  and donors who are also leading members of ARTA, the pro-trail group that wants to dismantle the Scenic Railroad.

Secondly, NCPR continues to ask thorny questions about ASR’s track record (I know, sorry), operating on sections of the line from Old Forge to Lake Placid over the last twenty-plus years.

Some pro-train advocates think these questions, by their very nature, are unfair and inappropriate.  They think maintaining the railroad is a no-brainer and they’re dismayed that critics have been given so much attention and air time.

So let me address these two concerns in order.

IS NCPR SECRETLY SUPPORTING THE TRAIN (OR THE TRAIL)?

It’s true that we have some good friends and donors, including Lee Keet from Saranac Lake, who are part of NCPR’s community while also serving as high-profile leaders of ARTA.

But it’s also a fact that we have a huge cadre of support — financial and otherwise — from passionately pro-train folks, from Lake Placid to Old Forge and beyond.

It’s also true that we have a carefully crafted system of ethical and professional “firewalls” in place to protect our reporting from financial influence or political pressure.

In fact, NCPR has a long history of infuriating people who consider themselves to be our friends and core supporters.  We don’t do it cavalierly, but we do it cheerfully when the facts and the story make it necessary.

Sometimes those folks drop  out of our community.  Usually they don’t.

Finally, it’s important for both sides in this debate to remember that the rail-trail fight in the Adirondacks is a relatively small issue in the context of the stories we cover over our huge region.

Our reporters are in the field covering high-intensity and high-dollar issues all the time — from hydro-fracking to the rooftop highway to big Adirondack land purchases.

In doing that work, we’ve developed strong procedures for protecting our work from undue influence.

SO WHY KEEP ASKING TOUGH QUESTIONS?

So assuming we’re not in the tank for either side, why ask these questions at all?  Why dig into the Scenic Railroad’s business plan?  Why give them the third degree over things like their financial health?

The first answer is that we plan to continue asking similarly tough questions about the rail-trail idea.  We haven’t yet kicked the tires adequately on claims being made by ARTA about the cost and benefits of creating a long trail.   That will happen this winter.

But it’s also true that in this story the Scenic Railroad is sort of like the incumbent politician in a political race.  They’re the group with the history, the long years of struggle, with some big successes and some pretty big stumbles.

ASR now plans to ask New York for a 20 year commitment for use of the publicly-owned corridor, and for roughly $15.2 million in funding to restore a set of rails that would be used almost exclusively by their trains.

It’s NCPR’s job to provide skeptical, hard-nosed, fact-driven reporting about the Scenic Railroad’s internal workings, so that the public (again, including supporters) can reach informed conclusions about whether that investment is a good idea.

We also strive to be scrupulously fair and respectful.  But train supporters, as much as critics, deserve to know as much as possible about the project, its strengths, its weaknesses, and any unanswered questions.

One final note.  Folks following this story closely will note that the version on NCPR’s airwaves differs a bit from the version that appeared in the pages of Adirondack Explorer magazine.

This is because the magazine has a longer lag time and went to press before I uncovered some key bits of information, including my interview with Iowa Pacific executive Ed Ellis, and my opportunity to view a part of ASR’s business plan.

HOW TO REACH US IF YOU DO HAVE A CONCERN

As always, if folks do still have concerns about our reporting, or hear something that just doesn’t sound right, we welcome feedback.  I’m at brian@ncpr.org.  Martha Foley, our news director, can be reached at martha@ncpr.org.  Station manager Ellen Rocco can be reached at ellen@ncpr.org.

Railroad feud: when bureaucrats school the public

train hearings 2

A crowd packs a meeting room in Ray Brook to offer widely different views about the Adirondack rail corridor. Photo: Brian Mann

This week, I’ve gone spelunking in the wild, ferocious world of the Adirondack rail-trail debate.  Trust me, it’s a rabbit hole of zeal and rhetoric that Lewis Carroll couldn’t have dreamed up.

Because I live in the Adirondacks and have good friends on both sides of the debate, my Facebook page and my email box are full of people chiming in and sounding off.

The trouble here isn’t that people have strong opinions.  That’s great.  In fact, I think the debate has inspired both sides to come up better, more exciting ideas.

The problem is that both sides — those who want a new recreational trail and those who want a refurbished tourism train — have gotten downright mean, each accusing the other at various times of dishonesty, bullying and mean spiritedness.

Remember what’s at stake here.  Two essentially fun ideas about a really cool asset in the Adirondacks.

And remember that both sides have legitimate arguments to make, the one camp pushing for a vision of a rail line that ferries visitors into the heart of the Adirondack wilderness, the other camp pushing for a less costly multi-use trail that would also open new kinds of access.

Yes, both sides have stretched their arguments on occasion, picking and choosing numbers to fit the story they’re trying to tell.  But no more than people always do when trying to win a debate.

I’ve seen plenty of spin here, but no outright deception and nothing I would describe as underhanded — from either faction.  Both groups, in fact, clearly believe that their narrative is true.

Which brings us to this week.

State officials decided not to buy into the us-versus-them-take-no-prisoners narrative that’s been brewing.

Instead of holding a series of rail corridor meetings where people spouted off and hissed at each other, repeating the same old arguments, the DEC and DOT held a much more holistic series of planning meetings.

Participants broke up into small groups.  The public had an opportunity to  talk one-on-one with state experts from the Conservation and Transportation departments, offering their opinions, sharing their views of the facts.

I heard a few people complaining about the format, some passionately.  They demanded an old school forum.  They demanded that their questions and suspicions be addressed immediately.

And I get it.  Normally, I’m not a huge fan of bureaucrats trying to stage manage events like this, but as far as I could see the exercise actually worked.

People had a chance to be heard and to shape an important public discussion, without raising the temperature even higher.

So this is one case where maybe the public can take a page from the government bureaucrats.  Take a deep breath.  Remember that the people on the “other side” are actually your neighbors and friends.

Remember that we’re talking about a tourism rail corridor, not the future of Mideast peace.

And do your best to listen and to think hard about your own positions and your own tone.  Remember that, whatever your position, you’re asking the other camp to make some big, painful concessions.

Train supporters are asking the public to pony up a lot of money to pay for their vision of a tourism railroad that runs through the heart of the wilderness.  And to trust them with another decade or so of management of this valuable corridor.  That’s big.

Trail supporters, meanwhile, are asking people who care deeply about this train line — its history, its potential — to give up a dream that they’ve struggled mightily to bring to life.  That’s huge.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that the “winning” side here will be the one that shows the most humor, compassion, and flexibility as this process moves forward.

I know this sounds like a full-blown finger wag.  And yeah, guilty as charged.  But of all the big public debates I’ve covered in the Adirondacks, this may be the one that has the least credible rationale for ugliness and vitriol.

NY takes up Adirondack train debate In September

Time for the debate to leave the station? Photo: Matt Johnson, CC some rights reserved

Time for the debate to leave the station? Photo: Matt Johnson, Creative Commons,  some rights reserved

This just in from New York’s Conservation Department:

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) today announced they will hold four public meetings in September about the management of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor, a 119-mile rail line in the western Adirondack Mountains.

Sessions will be held in Old Forge, Tupper Lake, Ray Brook and Utica.  This is a public debate that critics of the tourism train now operating in the north-central Adirondacks have been demanding.

A growing advocacy group calling itself ARTA wants the track repurposed as a multi-use trail.  Train buffs say the tourism railroad offers a unique, historical attraction for visitors.

The issue has divided long-time allies, and meant peculiar partnerships between old foes.  But this is the first time that state officials have waded into the fray.

Here’s the balance of the DEC’s press release:

Information and comments gathered from the public and stakeholder groups will help the commissioners of the two state agencies determine whether to amend the Remsen-Lake Placid Corridor Unit Management Plan.  The plan, adopted by DEC and NYSDOT in March 1996, assesses the natural and physical resources along the 100-foot-wide corridor and identifies opportunities for public use.  It guides how the corridor is used and managed.

The public meetings are scheduled for the following dates and locations.

  • Monday, September 9, 6-9 p.m. at the Town of Webb Park Avenue Office Building, 183 Park Avenue in Old Forge
  • Tuesday, September 10, 1-4 p.m. at the DEC Region 5 Headquarters, 1115 State Route 86, in Ray Brook
  • Monday, September 16, 1-4 p.m. at the State Office Building, 207 Genesee Street, in Utica
  • Tuesday, September 17, 6-9 p.m.at the Wild Center, 45 Museum Drive, in Tupper Lake

The sessions will include a presentation by the state agencies and informational stations where the public can give state agency staff their comments and ideas verbally or in writing.

All of the meeting facilities are wheelchair accessible. Requests for directions or specific accommodations for any of the meetings may be directed to 518-897-1200 or 315-793-2327.

Written comments also may be submitted by Sept. 25 to NYSTravelCorridor@dot.ny.gov, faxed to 518-457-3183, or mailed to Raymond F. Hessinger, Director, Freight & Passenger Rail Bureau, NYS Department of Transportation, 50 Wolf Road, POD 54, Albany, NY 12232.

The state acquired the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor in 1975 from the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad. The rail line was constructed in 1892 and was operated by New York Central Railroad and, later, Penn Central Railroad until freight service ended in 1972.

NYSDOT manages the line in keeping with a Travel Corridor Unit Management Plan developed in conjunction with DEC.  Approximately 100 miles of the corridor is located within the Adirondack Park.  An additional 19 miles is located outside of the Park in the Tug Hill Region.

For three Adirondack railroads, debate over taxpayer costs

Time for the debate to leave the station? Photo: Matt Johnson, CC some rights reserved

Time for the debate to leave the station?
Photo: Matt Johnson, CC some rights reserved

A couple of years ago the AMC movie channel launched an on-going series called “Hell on Wheels” that dramatizes — in gritty fashion — construction of America’s trans-continental railroad in the 1860s.

A similarly gritty melodrama is unfolding now in the Adirondacks over the future of railroading in the mountains.

The big news earlier this month was the state’s decision to revisit management of the big rail corridor that stretches through some of the Adirondacks’ wildest country.

The decision was bitter news for train buffs who see a future for railroading that might someday include Pullman cars arriving from New York City and the restoration of regular passenger and freight service to Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

But as New York prepares for public hearings, the skeptics are increasingly, well, skeptical.  The Adirondack Daily Enterprise ran a lead editorial this week asking pointed questions about millions of taxpayer dollars going to keep the little-used tracks in place.

We understand it’s hard and expensive to re-establish a railroad, and maybe the public hasn’t gone far enough through the tunnel to see the light at the end. But if there is enough demand for a train to justify to the expense, wouldn’t it have shown itself more by now?

Similar questions are being asked in the North Creek area, where the “Saratoga-North Creek Railway is months behind on payments the railroad is supposed to be making to the county,” according to the Glens Falls Post Star.

At one point, the delinquent payments totaled more than $85,000, though the railroad has cut the amount owed to roughly $28,000.  This from the Post-Star:

The railway pays the county a portion of the revenue it takes in, and has been continually late with its payments, the Treasurer’s Office said in a budget report released this week.

“We have had problems collecting our monthly payment on time since 7/1/12,” Deputy Treasurer Robert Lynch wrote.

Finally, there is renewed debate over the future of a railroad spur that runs to Newton Falls in the northern Adirondacks.  A couple of years ago, New York state agreed to spend $10 million refurbishing the line.

It was the largest single project approved as part of the state’s new Regional Economic Development program and backers touted it as a way to help revitalize the local paper mill and protect jobs in the region.

But now the mill in Newton Falls is being dismantled, with the component parts auctioned off.

Even though there’s no industrial operation in place to use the train route, some locals say the state dollars should still be spent.  This from WWNY-TV:

Despite the paper mill’s demise, officials say a plan to use nearly $10 million to rehabilitate a 46-mile railroad line running through St. Lawrence, Lewis and Jefferson Counties has not been scrapped and remains on track.

“You have to have that railroad if we’re going to encourage any type of business into that site,” said Chris Westbrook, Clifton-Fine Economic Development Group.

So what do you think?  Is the railroad spur to Newton Falls “a road to nowhere”?  Or a smart infrastructure investment that could bring industry back to the northern Adirondacks?

What about millions of dollars in taxpayer support for these other Park railroads?  A smart downpayment?  A boondoggle?  Your comments welcome.

State to review Adirondack rail corridor plan

Time for the debate to leave the station? Photo: Matt Johnson, CC some rights reserved

Time for the debate to leave the station?
Photo: Matt Johnson, CC some rights reserved

State officials announced moments ago that they plan to revisit the management plan guiding use of the controversial corridor between Old Forge Inlet and Remsen and the heart of the Adirondacks — Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.

Critics of the tourist railroad have urged a review over the last two years and today’s announcement represents a big step in their efforts to reopen the question of how the line should be used.

Here is the full release from New York State:

DOT & DEC TO REVIEW THE MANAGEMENT PLAN FOR REMSEN-LAKE PLACID TRAVEL CORRIDOR

Public Process Will Determine Future Use of the Rail Corridor

New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Joan McDonald and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens announced today that the State will initiate a public process to review the Unit Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (UMP/EIS) for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor, a 119-mile section of rail line that runs through the Adirondack Park. The UMP/EIS will be reviewed to assess the corridor’s natural and physical resources in an effort to identify the best public and economic use.

“Based on public feedback, DOT will work with the DEC to review the Unit Management Plan for the region in order to engage local communities about the best future use of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor,” said DOT Commissioner McDonald. “The Department of Transportation is focused on providing a safe transportation system that meets the needs of the communities it serves and helps to support regional economies. Reviewing the UMP will help us do that for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor.”

DEC Commissioner Martens said, “Members of the public are very interested in the future use of the rail line and reviewing the UMP/EIS process will provide the public with the opportunity to weigh in on the use of the corridor. This public process will enable DOT and DEC to hear from residents, local officials, visitors and other stakeholders on their views of the current and future use of the Travel Corridor.”

The DOT, DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) developed the 1996 UMP/EIS with considerable public input.  The current effort to review the UMP will take into account issues that have developed over the past 20 years by providing an opportunity for all interests to be part of the process and comment on future transportation and recreation opportunities along the Travel Corridor.

The DOT and DEC will work with the APA and schedule public scoping meetings on a timely basis to help determine what issues and factors will be considered in the environmental review. Both agencies will subsequently prepare an amended draft UMP/EIS laying out a vision for the future of the Travel Corridor.  The draft UMP/EIS will be widely available for public review and comment prior to developing a final UMP/EIS that will be considered by the APA, and ultimately approved by Commissioners McDonald and Martens.

The 119-mile long Remsen Lake Placid Travel Corridor is under the jurisdiction of DOT, and is managed pursuant to a Travel Corridor Unit UMP/EIS.  The Travel Corridor runs in a northeasterly direction connecting Utica to Lake Placid.  Approximately 100 miles of this Travel Corridor is located within the Adirondack Park. An additional 19 miles is located outside of the Park in the Tug Hill Region.

A deepening rail-trail mess in the Adirondacks

Time for the debate to leave the station? Photo: Matt Johnson, CC some rights reserved

Time for the debate to leave the station?
Photo: Matt Johnson, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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.

Map of the disputed route from ARTA's website.

Map of the disputed route from ARTA’s website.

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.

 

Adirondack train group moves to answer growing questions

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.

Adirondack train boosters face growing questions

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.

Morning Read: Douglas entangled in train debate

The debate over the future of the rail corridor between Remsen and Lake Placid is one of the most heated I’ve seen in the last decade.

Now Garry Douglas, head of the Plattsburgh-North Country Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, is tangled up in the furor.

Advocates of converting the railroad to a trail system are demanding that Douglas step down from the NC REDC because he has pushed so strenuously in favor of maintaining and enhancing the railroad.

They cite in particular a letter, published in the Tupper Lake Free Press, where Douglas urged rail road supporters to “come out in force to drown out recreational-trail supporters” before a public meeting.

This from the Plattsburgh Press-Republican:

Douglas said the letter to the Tupper Lake Free Press was meant as a personal correspondence to Next Stop Tupper Lake Chairman Dan McClelland, who is also the newspaper’s editor.

But that email was published.

“Nevertheless, in hindsight, it went a step too far in mixing my roles. I feel badly about that and apologize,” Douglas said.

“I will, however, remain active and passionate, and I have no problem with others of differing perspectives doing likewise. Somehow, in the end, this can usually lead to better outcomes, finding the best ways to achieve two aims instead of one.”

Jim McCulley, Lake Placid Snowmobile Club president, is on the Trail Advocates Board of Directors.

“Douglas’s job as co-chair of the Economic Council is to take input and then go from there. We just need an honest debate here,” he told the Press-Republican.

This dust-up speaks, in part, to the vagaries of the Regional Economic Development Council system, which has enormous influence over state funding for projects, but which is staffed by volunteers — including Douglas — who have a vested interest in many of the region’s activities.

It is also unclear how the REDC groups will resolve controversial issues, as we saw with their debate over the so-called rooftop highway project.

So what do you think?  Do you have questions about Douglas’s role?  Or about the structure of the process in general?  Or is the system working?  Comments welcome.

Afternoon Read: So which will it be, Adirondacks? Rails or trails?

The Albany Times-Union is wading into the debate over how legacy railroad lines should be used in the Adirondacks.

The newspaper focuses primarily on the fight in the Tri-Lakes region, where some activists want the railbed from Lake Placid to Old Forge turned into a multi-use trail.

“This trail is the ideal alternative to a failed railroad,” said Jim McCulley, president of Lake Placid Snowmobile Club and a member of the new Adirondack Recreation Trail Advocates. He said the cash-strapped state has little prospect of paying to upgrade the 80-mile stretch, so aging rails likely will remain useless for years.

Between 2007 and 2010, the society got more than $900,000 in support from the state Department of Transportation and still lost more than $66,000 running the line. “The moment the state subsidy stops, they cannot even turn on the lights,” McCulley said.

This narrative infuriates train buffs and their supporters, who see railroads as an important asset, not just for tourism.

Railway Society Vice President J. Alan Heywood said such thinking is shortsighted. “We have had limited success, but it is not fair to be judged by a track that is a third done,” he said. “We have almost reached critical mass. I used to give dates when we would have the entire line repaired, but every one of them has been wrong. It could still take years. A decade would be my goal.”

…And he said the rail line will become more important in future years, if the price of gasoline rises. “Once those rails are gone, getting them back in is unlikely,” he said.

Railroad fans argue that this debate is nonsensical, given the fact that state officials have shown no appetite for abandoning the tracks or converting them into a recreational path.  But path advocates have been successful at keeping the issue alive.

What do you think?  Is this a timely debate?