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.


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134 Comments on “A deepening rail-trail mess in the Adirondacks”

  1. Phil says:

    Paul, the Keller Branch in Peoria, IL, referenced by the article above, was torn out to make way for a trail while an active rail line. It was an old Rock Island line, owned by the City of Peoria but operated by Pioneer Railroad. The city made a tragic mistake and converted most of it to a trail around 1999, and Pioneer finally gave in and ended its retrenched service a few years later:


    Very, very few people ever use the Kellar Branch trail. The consensus is that it was pushed as a trail (knowing that it would never be adequately patronized) by those who are opposed to industry in their backyard, and now it is seen as a big, embarrassing mistake for the City.

  2. Hope Frenette says:

    Paul, The State of NY own the land in fee title, ie: it is not a ROW. NYS (DOT) leases the corridor to the rail group for $1.00 during the spring, summer fall season. NYS (DOT) leases the corridor to the NYSSA (NYS Snowmobile Assoc.) for $1.00 in the winter. The corridor in question starts in Remson (not Utica) and goes all the way to Lake Placid. There is a UMP for the corridor just as there is for all state owned lands in the forest preserve. The section between Big Moose and Saranac Lake is currently unable to support rail operations due to deteriorated tracks and the train has been wintering in Lake Placid. State funds will be required to be invested in rehabilitating the tracks in order for the train to be able to run from Big Moose to Saranac Lake. Amounts required have been posted anywhere from 15 million to 50 million depending on who you talk to and whether or not they are upgraded to Class II or III levels.

  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    There is already an example of an extremely successful rail to trail partially within the Blue Line – the Warren County Bikeway (or trail, or something). This trail, built on an unused rail bed in the 70’s or so with some additions in more recent times has proven to be tremendously popular with bikers and walkers and skiers, and there is some use of snowmobiles on it – though that use has been contentious. Of course this is only a short trail from a relatively large population center in Glens Falls to Lake George but there is much to be learned from decades of use there.

  4. John Kessler says:

    Mervel asked;

    Are there any commercial rail companies involved or being consulted about the project? (CSX, Burlington Northern etc)?

    Actually, yes. Iowa Pacific, the same folks with the very successful North Creek operation, want to run passenger service from NYC to Lake Placid.


  5. John Kessler says:

    Rail Trails can be wonderful resources in the right areas. That typically means running through or near high population centers. People don’t travel long distances just to use a trail. I’ve been on many rural rail trails and spent hours on them without ever encountering another visitor.

    Building a trail on an abandoned and never again to be used railroad right of way is a terrific and nearly free way to make use of an asset that would otherwise be lost. Ripping out the tracks of an operating railroad is not a wise move.

    Personally I love riding the existing Adirondack Railroad and have done so several times. A couple of years ago I took my Aunt and severely handicapped Uncle (he had MS) on a trip to Old Forge. They both loved it and it was one of the last enjoyable days my uncle Bill had before he passed away from his illness. The railroad treated him great and the shuttle buses went out of there way to accommodate him. I’ve been waiting for years now to be able to finally ride the entire line from Utica to Lake Placid. I hope it happens in my lifetime.

  6. david link says:

    Ok Brian,

    This, you very carefully presented to be a objective article on the issue. It isn’t, and we all know it.
    Lee Keet has been behind the ARTA thrust to remove the rails for whatever reason, In Tupper Lake last year he said he would rather ride his bike across Lake Colby, and he didn’t like his view of the railroad track from his mansion on the shore. This many of us at the meeting will confirm. But, the Ernest and Nancy Keet foundation have spent an undisclosed sum of their millions to underwrite ARTA, and other NIMBY actions. Keet was, as you know, a leader in the battle against Wall Mart and well has supported numerous political operatives whom you are well aware of to extend his vision and agenda for the area. Funny, you forgot to mention that the Keet Foundation granted a subatantial sum to NCPR to “Upgrade it’s News Platform”.
    Interesting, how you haven’t contacted any person or group who is against the Keet funded assult on this long overdue public benefit project. Oh, should I mention your connections to the elected and the web of control over information in our region? As far as NCPR, we used to donate, but, your new underwriter has led us to send our donations and support elsewhere. Some of us do know what is going on. Don’t try to sell this of news, we know it is elitist spin.

  7. mervel says:

    Thanks John,

    To me that shows some real viability to the concept.

  8. Paul says:

    Hope, thanks. So if the state were to decide that the land was not a transportation corridor (or have that potential any longer) would they need to “revert” it to Forest Preserve land? Might have a fight with environmental groups brewing there?

    Phil, thanks.

  9. Paul says:

    John I have to agree and wonder about the numbers. One trail in the ARTA case studies is one close to York PA. This is well used yet less than an hour from Baltimore and less than two hours from DC. Not to mention closer to Harrisburg and many many people. This one is in a very different place.

  10. Thomas Paine says:

    A New York county that permitted the drilling of a mere 20 wells could, in a four-year period, see per capita income rise 3% more than it would have if no wells had been drilled. If all New York counties above the Marcellus Shale were to pursue this course, they could collectively have $4.2 billion more in income just in the last year of that four-year period. On the other hand, drilling 400 wells in a county, which some Pennsylvania counties have done in a similar timeframe, could raise incomes by over $8 billion, or 6%, with commensurate increases in statewide gains. Tax revenues would increase with incomes.

    In addition, new natural gas production spurred by hydraulic fracturing would constitute an in-state energy supply, attracting more manufacturing back to the state.

    If New York State were to lift its moratorium on hydrofracturing, individual towns would have to decide whether they want to profit from their underground shale. In balancing costs against benefits, it’s important to be precise about those benefits. New York’s towns can see immediate and concrete benefits in hydrofracturing wells: more money in resident’s pockets, more tax revenue for the state.

  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    TP, don’t be ridiculous. If the income levels in PA were increasing like you say, then north eastern PA would look prosperous. Take a drive down there and look at it. There is money being spent down there for sure and a few people are getting some nice income from it but the big things that will last until after the gas is gone are well-heads in the ground and the pad sites around them along with gravel roads plowed through woods and fields. There are some commercial buildings that have been built as industrial staging areas and a bunch of new hotels to house the workers who mostly come from outside of PA. Once the fracking is over you’ll get a good deal on a commercial building in an area without much commerce or a hotel in an area without any tourism. Virtually all of the money will have left the area.

  12. mervel says:

    I think these gas plays usually last between 10-15 years. I think the long term should certainly be looked at. But you know the biggest benefit is really the higher paying blue collar jobs that are spawned. Something we desperately need. But I think any sort of drilling anywhere near the park boundary let alone within the park would be a non-starter and would not even be considered. The protection of the Adirondacks are more important than jobs, we just have to go ahead and admit that. Regardless of the debate on safety of fracking or not, we know it has major environmental impacts, you are pouring millions of gallons of water down these holes and then you have to dispose of the mix etc, plus just the road building the transporting, the general type of heavy manufacturing development are all not compatible with the Park.

  13. mervel says:

    But for example if they found gas deposits in SLC away from the Park, I would be all for developing those.

  14. David Banks says:

    In personal response to David Link’s scurrilous accusations, I most definitely am not being compensated in any way for my involvement with ARTA. Mr. Link’s accusations are unsubstantiated and shameful, and they have no place in a discussion that should focus on valid public policy considerations.

  15. Ernest Keet says:

    I am more puzzled that offended that David Link would take my family’s charitable contributions as a lynch pin for his diatribe against trail conversion. I am puzzled why he would take the de minimis amounts that have gone from my family’s foundation to ARTA verss local projects (kids playgrounds, Adirondack Health, the Saranac Lake Free Library, Life Flight, Voluntary Nurse Services, etc.) and then somehow made my family’s support for the communities in the Adirondacks a bad thing.

    I am lucky to have had a family that cared about the Adirondacks and left me some wherewithal to support it, mostly a good education. My father was Frank Trudeau’s first partner, and he provided health care the old fashioned way, making house calls and getting up in the middle of the night to hold someone’s hand. He instilled in me the respect for people, poor or rich, that made me want to help our local communities thrive.

    ARTA has gotten less than 2% of our family’s giving. We have supported ARTA because we believe the railroad is a dinosaur that does NOTHING for the local communities, and we believe that Tupper Lake is worth saving. For the record, the Keet family has been in the Adirondacks since 1805 and cares about the people, lands, and future of the place. I have no idea why the rest of us are putting up with the *&_!ht that these fanatics line David Link are spouting. Why can’t this be about what is best for the community? I do not know who David Link is, have never met him, but I am sure that he represents the worst of this discussion. I hope someone with more to say than he can make the case for the 42-year defunct railroad.

  16. Marlo Stanfield says:

    Back on the rail corridor, I think it’s clear that there’s a divide in the communities along the corridor as to the best use of it, and that support for a trail has been increasing. Look at Tupper Lake, six or seven years ago their public officials and business community were, at least publicly, all rah rah for extending the railroad to Tupper. That’s not the case anymore. It’s time for the DOT to reopen the use plan.

    As for this latest plan for Pullman service from NYC to Lake Placid, how many people are going to pay the more than $1,000 for an 11 hour trip when you can make the drive in five hours, take an Amtrak to Westport and a bus from there to Placid in a little more time, or fly from NYC to Boston and then Lake Clear for a lot less money? And this dream of Pullman service is contingent on making the major upgrades to the rail corridor that the DOT has had decades to do and hasn’t done.

    New York City is not jam packed with people with money to blow on or interest in taking an uneconomical, slow, retro-style trip chugging through upstate New York. You can go to the Caribbean for the cost of one of these luxury Pullman trips. It’s another fantasy.

  17. Hope Frenette says:

    Shame on you David Link. Just because you disagree with ARTA’s or Lee Keet’s support of ARTA doesn’t give you any reason to malign Brian Mann’s motivation or personally attack a generous donor to many worthy Adirondack institutions. This controversy is news and as such should be up for discussion without personal attacks. If this is what you need to do to gather support for your cause I’d say you must be getting pretty desperate. I’m sure the ASR and ARRPS has their share of well heeled donors and politically connected supporters also. Who cares.

  18. Jim McCulley says:

    You know the argument is over,when personal attacks are all they have left to support the train. The sad thing about it is 1 year after the trail is built everyone will be wondering why we didn’t build it sooner.

  19. Walker says:

    “I have no idea why the rest of us are putting up with the *&_!ht that these fanatics line David Link are spouting.”

    “You know the argument is over,when personal attacks are all they have left to support the train.”

    Look, so far as I can see, there ARE no other “fanatics line David Link.” Care to point out any?

    And because one “fanatic” on the pro-train side goes off the deep end doesn’t mean the rest of us are lacking in reasonable arguments. Don’t go all opportunistic on us here.

    Could have come from some wingnut on your side just as easily.

  20. Jim McCulley says:

    Well Thomas Paine’s statements on another site come to mind. The fact that I have to have a restraining order on John Rickard ASR board member. Who arrived seemingly intoxicated state at 9:30 am to threaten me and my business for wanting a trail. He was with the president of the ASR at the time. Then of course there is http://spikesandrails.com/railroad%20truth.htm Do you need more?

  21. Walker says:

    None of which has anything to do with whether rail, trail, or rail with trail is the best approach. Talk about personal attack!

  22. Paul says:

    Wow, this is really getting interesting now! Come on people, get a grip.

  23. Paul says:

    ” Look at Tupper Lake, six or seven years ago their public officials and business community were, at least publicly, all rah rah for extending the railroad to Tupper. That’s not the case anymore.”

    This kind of makes you think maybe everyone needs to take a breather. Once the rails are gone there will be no getting them back. So you can’t change your mind again later.

  24. Paul says:

    Hope, in a debate like this you will always have folks that will say something totally nutty. You should just move around that and plug ahead.

  25. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    As Hunter S. Thompson once said, when the going gets weird the weird go pro. Or something like that

  26. Marlo Stanfield says:

    Yeah, if the rails are torn up we’re probably never going to get the scenic railroad back. But the rails that are there now couldn’t support an Amtrak type passenger train or heavy freight. If we need that someday we would have to replace the rails that are there anyway, and we could put it on over a trail.

    I think the scenic railroad has had enough time to prove it’s not bringing in much. Over the summer, when the train’s in Saranac Lake, go to the Belvedere or the Bowling Alley or Captain Cooks. They’re all a short walk from the station. Have a couple drinks and see how many people are there from the train. It’s not much. The train doesn’t contribute much to the economy. Not enough to justify its cost, and less than a multi use trail that would be open to many more people would. I don’t need to take a breather for another decade of reflection and economic impact studies to prove what I can already see.

  27. The Rail Trail is the “Next Big Thing”. As a new venue, the promotional possibilities are endless. Besides all the great amenities the Adirondacks offers, one of the most important is the psychological perception of freedom; doing what you want, when you want, at your own pace at some times in solitude. As residents and service providers, our economy is very much dependent on enhancing that experience.
    The Snowmobile use that exists now under permit from DOT would easily double in this corridor with no more investment than removing the rails and ties. The Trail use in non-snow months would be immediate at no cost and improve exponentially as the surface and facilities are enhanced; it does not have to be complete for this to work! Join http://www.theARTA.org, get involved, let’s get it done!

  28. Paul says:

    “The Rail Trail is the “Next Big Thing”. As a new venue, the promotional possibilities are endless. Besides all the great amenities the Adirondacks offers, one of the most important is the psychological perception of freedom; doing what you want, when you want, at your own pace at some times in solitude. As residents and service providers, our economy is very much dependent on enhancing that experience.”

    Scott I agree with all of that except maybe the prelude. Replace the first sentence with this:

    “The Adirondack Wilderness RR is a totally unique Adirondack Experience”. Then at the end put this:

    “Hikers, paddlers, and riders as well will be transported to new secluded trail-heads and put-ins along 90 miles of Adirondack wilderness. The new train will transport you and your gear (canoes, kayaks, and mountain bikes included) to your Adirondack adventure. The train will then pick you up at your convenience when your stay in the woods and on the waters is over. The train also services riders wishing to enjoy the beauty of the Adirondacks from the comfort of our restored passenger rail cars including open cars and glass top cars for viewing the beauty of the Adirondack night sky (norther lights on those cold Adirondack nights no extra charge!)”

    Okay, maybe a pipe dream but it would certainly be more unique than a rail-to-trail. But that would be fun for some people also. There is no doubt that the ASR (as it is configured now) is a bust. There is not much debate left there, the question is what are the OTHER potential uses of the corridor. The one I mention above does not run into the issue of fighting with the DOT or other problems.

  29. Paul and all,
    The idea of the RR is not totally wrong, but there are so many advantages to the trail concept, it is still my passion. The railroad has shown that it’s popularity is based on other attractions, but rail trails are usually an attraction in and of themselves. ( see Virginia Creeper, Pine Creek and Hatfield McCoy and others) If the train were to do all these pick ups and discharges for trails and waterways, the passengers would go nuts trying to get to THEIR stop. Actually, this is not that unique or scenic when compared to other Adirondack Trains. The Saratoga North Creek is more scenic, but struggles with passenger attractions. The Amtrak is a beautiful train, yet West Port is little more than a flag stop and is still subsidized at 53% per passenger to keep it running. That’s a lot of money that maybe should go to urban rail and highways used by ~87% of the public. When I worked for the Adirondack, there was always a conflict in hotel booking, because the only time the trains would fill is when there was already events that were filling the hotels anyway. I’m not sure you could change that. People are not willing to schedule for one or two trips a day, it’s not enough choice and operating a train every couple hours is simply not practical.

  30. Paul says:

    “If the train were to do all these pick ups and discharges for trails and waterways, the passengers would go nuts trying to get to THEIR stop. ”

    Scott, you are missing the main part of my point. The purpose of the train that I describe is not about getting from point A to point B as quickly as practical line on the Metro North or the BART is San Francisco. And again like I said it requires restoration along the length of the line. The train at it’s northern end does not yet carry people into the scenic part of the corridor, that is probably part of the reason it is not very well used.

    A train similar to what I describe is wildly popular in South West Colorado. I have used it to access hiking trails several times. You have to admit that if it were doable something like this would be far more “unique” than a rail-to-trail which is good but found in many other places.

    Here is a link to the train in CO and some of the many different adventure packages that are available. Some of the rails and rafting options might also be an option for this train depending on how close it gets to the Hudson or Moose River in places:


  31. david link says:

    Fanatic! ??? Who is financing ARTA.? Show us the taxpayers who is supporting ARTA, how much is being spent and your involvement with news reporting agencies. The ADE seems to come to mind for starters . You have grossly missrepresented the cost of rail to trail conversion, insulted rail supporters as weak minded or somehow mentally deranged. And, now, a fanatic want’s to see your books as a public 501 C-3 and can’t understand the relationship between the ARTA, the ADE and the Times Union. Ok, I’d love for this be set out in front of the public so they can understand how a dozen letter writers, funded from behind sell this as a public benefit project. Right, $20 million more economic impact from snowmobiling if the rails are removed and you can have a few more weeks of snow. Having lived and run a business here for 40 years. ( my family for more than 100 ), I can tell you that degree days and snowfall hasn’t been over 12 inches over 30 days a year for thirty years in Tupper. Show me the taxpayer who, how much, and why you “advocate” this transportation asset being destroyed . Your economic “study” is full of holes and funded by your backer. So, We are supposed to take your study, letters to the editor, “impartial” reporting from NPR as the gospel hook line and sinker. How dare we challenge or question your intellect and vision for the region. Fanatic …, Try resident, taxpayer, business owner, and employer.

  32. Hope Frenette says:

    I am a resident, business owner, taxpayer and employer in Tupper Lake. As well as a donor to ARTA along with thousands of others. I have personally written thank you notes to donors. There is a lot of support in Tupper Lake for this and money has come from here as we’ll as PTNY grants, and all of the other communities across the ADKs. Trust me when I say this David. The train will do absolutely nothing to build my business but my customers who are primarily second home owners and would be homeowners are very supportive of the rail trail. I already have potential customers waiting in the wings to start businesses in Tupper or expand them as well as folks who would want to buy vacation homes so I approach this from a very personal perspective.

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