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.


61 Comments on “Railroad feud: when bureaucrats school the public”

  1. Paul says:

    “Paul, ARTA didn’t make up the numbers. ” Hope, I didn’t suggest that they did. I just said if they are accurate it will be a very very crowded rail trail, especially if those numbers don’t include winter traffic.

    I hope they are correct. I think they are wildly optimistic. But I am sure they know what they are talking about.

  2. Paul says:

    PNElba, it will only happen with motorized use (at first at least). It will not mean that snow machines will be able to access wilderness areas, they already can. It does mean there will be more. At least this is the plan.

  3. Tony Goodwin says:

    Look at the Durango-Silverton web site to see what their equipment looks like. As for the Pullman service, the service between Chicago and New Orleans has struggled with fewer departures than originally planned and apparently many runs with only bare bones equipment in the consist. Check out the prices for that run, and try to imagine just how many would pay that sort of money to ride from NYC to Lake Placid.

    To be anywhere near profitable, railroads – especially 100+ mile railroads – need to be hauling full trainloads on a daily basis. There is no way that can ever happen on this line, so unless there is a significant ongoing state subsidy this railroad could not exist.

  4. Paul says:

    Tony, I have been on that train several times. I have seen the cars from the inside. Do you know how many more people would have easy access to a train like that here in the Adirondacks? That one out there is like a 6 hour drive from Denver, yet it is still very popular. I admit this one isn’t in the Animas River valley but it does go through some pretty cool stuff.

    I agree the Pullman idea is sketchy. But it is one more use of the tracks that could spread the costs of maintenance.

    The main point is if you pull the tracks for a trail all these other ideas (none of which have been seriously considered) are gone with the tracks.

  5. Mervel says:

    Plus then we can fight about what to do with the rail bed where the tracks used to be.

  6. Chris Getman says:

    I just completed a thru-hike of the Northville-Placid trail(second time). On both occassions I spent money in Lake Placid,Long Lake,Blue mtn. lake,Piseco,and Northville. I’m also going to do it again! A multi-use trail(I don’t personally care for snowmobiles but the economic benefits can’t be discounted) would be of a far greater benefit to the people living in the Adirondacks than a rail line that would most definately fall into the taxpayers laps eventually. Hikers,bikers,skiers snowshoers,snowmobilers costitute a vastly larger number of tourists who would be drawn to this area. They would also use the intersecting trails. Businesses would spring up along this trail to service the mutitude of visitors that would be drawn to this area. I like trains but would probably only ride it once but would utilize a multi-use trail numerous times each year. The much lower cost of building and maintaining it makes this a much,much better alternative. Volunteers would also be willing to help such as trail maintenance volunteers and excellent groups like Lean-To rescue for instance. The possiblities are endless!!

  7. Paul says:

    It sounds like these hearings are just about gathering info to determine if they want to revisit the UMP at some point later. If they decide the don’t want to it sounds like the trail advocates have no interest in keeping their original pledge to let up.

    “”It turns out, if the state after these listening sessions decides not to open the hearings, there’ll be a firestorm,” Mercurio told the Enterprise. “I won’t have to say a thing. But people out there are going to raise hell, because of a lot of them are as surprised as I was these are just listening sessions, and if that’s as far as it goes, they’re not going to be quiet.”


  8. Mervel says:

    The more I hear about a multi use trail the less I like it, I don’t want businesses springing up along any trail in the Adirondacks.

  9. Big Burly says:

    @ Tony Goodwin 09-15
    What I have found interesting in all the interventions by folks compelled by the either / or premise of the ARTA position is the recurring statement that the rail option has and will require state financial assistance.
    Every passenger operation in the world receives taxpayer subsidies. It is policy to support this form of transportation. NYS already does with AMTRAK, and so do most states in the republic, as well as the federal gov’t.
    Unless ARTA and its supporters are willing to forgo NYS subsidies to achieve the plan they have outlined, it is probably a better idea to pursue a co-located rail and trail system. By the time all the issues are resolved to: 1) get a ruling from the Federal Surface Transportation Board to abandon the line; 2) remove the corridor and the infrastructure of the rail system from the NYS and federal historic preservation designations; 3) complete the SEQR and EIS procedures to remove the rails and sleepers, most of those hoping for a recreation trail will have gone on to their reward.
    A coming together of ARTA and recreation trail supporters with those who support retention of an important economic system that is a railroad will help DEC and DOT to make the decision to actually do what was outlined in the original option 6 in 1996. Giving the rail operator something other than a 30-day lease to operate the rail service would enable the operator to attract investment capital.
    There are many options to examine that would make snowmobile travel a more pleasant experience; this could be accomplished when the roadbed is repaired and upgraded.
    Our region is not so well endowed with transportation alternatives that NYS can afford to discontinue rail services in this corridor.

  10. Marlo Stanfield says:

    I don’t see how businesses could spring up along the trail in this case. Except in the areas right in and around the villages, I think most of the land around the tracks is state owned or of an APA classification where you couldn’t put a shop there or anything. It’s mostly woods now, at least in the Tri-Lakes area. I don’t think we need to worry about a bunch of bars and ski shops springing up in the middle of the woods between Saranac Lake and Tupper.

  11. Walker says:

    Actually, Marlo, if you check the Paddling Map, it looks like there’s a substantial amount of private land along the corridor. Not sure how likely it is to sprout businesses. Certainly not ski shops– anyone who thinks of skiing this should have their head examined.

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