Is it time for the North Country’s tourist trains to give way to multi-use trails?

For the better part of a decade, a small, creative, and passionate group of activists have controlled the use of an invaluable recreation corridor.

The old railroad lines that criss-cross the North Country offer rare access to some of the most beautiful and remote areas of the Adirondacks.

In areas where the original industrial uses had faded, tourist trains sprang to life, midwifed with tens of millions of dollars in state and Federal subsidies.

But in many areas, the romance of the trains has faded, along with sagging ridership and limited tourism benefit.

Back in August 2009, North Elba town supervisor Roby Politi blasted the Adirondack Scenic Railroad that runs between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake

“It’s fair to say there are mixed feelings about the railroad in Lake Placid,” he told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. “I think the people feel it’s a nice attraction, but a financial boondoggle.”

Things went downhill from there. Here’s an excerpt from the Enterprise’s article:

Town Councilman Bob Miller said the train doesn’t bring anyone to Lake Placid.

“When I see the train go by, I don’t see people on the train,” he said. “I have to wonder if it would not be a better use of that corridor to have it as a recreational pathway for people that live here and for visitors.”

“I have nothing against the railroad,” added Councilman Jay Rand. “I’m just not quite convinced that for us, economically, it’s going to have that much of an impact.”

Meanwhile, organizers are meeting for this evening in Lowville to talk about a rails-to-trails project in Lewis County. From the Watertown Daily Times:

Information will be provided on the $1.41 million Village Center Pedestrian Trail project, other possible railroad-to-trail conversion projects and the overall county recreational trails program.

The $1.13 million federal Transportation Enhancement Program grant awarded to the village to help fund the pedestrian trail project also will be discussed.

Enthusiasts remain convinced that trains — not bicycles, hikers, handicapped shuttles, x-country skiers, snowmobilers, etc. — are the best use of these old railbeds.

Their views should be heard and considered seriously.

But as state and Federal subsidies dwindle, and as trains continue to run empty between empty train stations, that argument wears a little thin.

Using the Department of Transportation’s more liberal rules (the corridor is exempt from many of the most stringent Forest Preserve regulations) an incredible 4-season multi-use trail could be established between Lake Placid and Old Forge.

Imagine mountain biking along the edge of the St. Regis Canoe Area or the Five Ponds Wilderness.

Imagine extending the snowmobile season by an extra two-to-three weeks. (Because of the lack of iron rails.)

Imagine a single multi-use trail connecting all the trails in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, from the Northville Placid Trail on one end to Scarface and Oseetah to the Jackrabbit and Mt. Baker on the other.

The new train station in Tupper Lake would be an important jumping-off point for users, but a spur trail could also be built to the Wild Center.

Does anyone doubt that such a trail would be far cheaper to maintain and draw far more use?

I am one of the few people who have had the good fortune to ride the “Fairy Tale” railroad over that long, rugged route. It was exhilarating, a part of the region’s railroad history.

And I admire deeply the men and women who’ve kept the dream alive so long.

But it’s time for a rethink. All sides should sit down and look at this incredible asset with open minds and creative spirits.

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