Press-Republican

February 13, 2013

Tupper asks DOT to evaluate railroad use

KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

TUPPER LAKE — The Village Board is pushing for a new state review regarding management of the railroad corridor through Tupper Lake.

The trustees want access decisions made so people will know what projects to develop.

The Lake Placid-Remsen railroad tracks, managed by the State Department of Transportation, are not currently high grade enough for commercial use or for the slower tourist train traffic to or from Tupper Lake. 

Trains owned by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad do travel between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

The unused 25-mile corridor from Saranac Lake to Tupper has drawn interest from recreational-trail advocates, who believe it would make a perfect start to a wilderness bike path if the tracks were torn out.

But railroad enthusiasts and historians in Tupper Lake rebuilt the former train depot, anticipating restoration of rails.

About eight years ago, Gov. George Pataki allocated $5 million for new tracks to Tupper Lake.

PRESSED TO REOPEN PLAN

Several groups, including AdkAction, the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates and the Adirondack North Country Association, have done independent work, assessing the economic-impact potential of the corridor. 

The numbers do not entirely align. 

Then, in October 2012, the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society, which operates the tourist trains, announced an agreement with Iowa Pacific to establish Pullman car service on the line to New York City.

But the property, classified as a Travel Corridor in the Adirondack State Land Master Plan, is owned and managed by DOT.

The DOT’s Unit Management Plan for the corridor, completed in 1995, has not been updated since. And DOT has not officially weighed in on proposals.

At the far end of the line, Utica City Council voted 9-0 last month to keep the tracks in place.

In a recent 4-1 vote, the Tupper Lake Village Board asked state transportation officials to reopen the plan and sort out the best use of the corridor.

That resolution joins similar measures approved in the towns of Harrietstown and Tupper Lake and the Village of Saranac Lake.

DOT did not respond to numerous Press-Republican requests in the past week seeking its position on reopening the Unit Management Plan.

‘CRITICAL CROSSROADS’

The dissenting Tupper Lake Village vote was cast by Mayor Paul Maroun, who is concerned that public review could render the route inaccessible to motorized traffic forever.

Tupper Lake is at a critical railroad-corridor crossroads, he said, with work planned for a major resort development here.

The railroad long supported the timber industry in Tupper Lake, he observed in a recent interview.

“There is a strong possibility that, if you open the UMP up, then the Lake Placid-Remsen line could become ‘no motor vehicle access’ wilderness land. It’s been so long since DOT reviewed the plan, and nothing has happened. Why now? Shared use for recreational trails beside the tracks is already in the Unit Management Plans.”

Maroun said that if DOT abandons the rails, then the land could eventually revert back to wilderness, erasing the thin connector route that is the Lake Placid-Remsen travel corridor.

‘DIVISIVE DEBATE’

Several other user groups already have plans in motion.

With permits in hand, the Adirondack North Country Association is seeking matching funds to build a rail-with-trail project beside the tracks from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake.

The North Country Economic Development Council has made revitalizing railroads throughout the entire region a priority in order to improve commerce and transportation.

And, Maroun said, potential investment from Iowa Pacific for through traffic to New York City a “huge” prospect.

Meantime, he said, the debate between user groups has gotten divisive, as they cannot agree on which economic indicators to use.

Copies of the Village Board’s resolution asking DOT to revisit the railroad corridor were sent to DOT, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Department of Environmental Conservation, Adirondack Park Agency and local lawmakers, Maroun said.

“The trail advocates think if you open the line up tomorrow, there will be 200 snowmobiles a day in Tupper Lake. We have use of the corridor for snowmobiles now and that doesn’t happen.

“I’m for finding a way for shared use. If we can get $3.64 billion for a new Tappan Zee Bridge over eight years, then we can get $50 million to do both railroad upgrades and a bike path beside or around the tracks.”

IMPACT AREA

About 50 people spoke to the issue ahead of the Village Board’s vote, Maroun said.

The railroad corridor has an expansive impact area, transecting 10 towns and six upstate counties: Oneida, Herkimer, Hamilton, St. Lawrence, Essex and Franklin.

About 87 percent of the 119-mile railroad line is inside the Adirondack Park; only 46 miles are bordered by State Forest Preserve land.

The rest is bordered by numerous private landowners.

Email Kim Smith: kdedam@pressrepublican.com