Press-Republican

June 7, 2013

State to review railroad-line management plan

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

RAY BROOK — After months of pressure from both sides of the issue, the state will review use of the Lake Placid-Remsen Travel Corridor.

The Unit Management Plan is the defining land-use document for the single railroad line connecting Utica to Lake Placid.



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Completed in 1996, the plan has become the center of an ongoing dispute pitting railroad use against recreational-trail use on the 119-mile line, much of which is inside the Adirondack Park.

In a joint press release issued Thursday, the State Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Conservation said they will launch a public review process to appraise use of the Travel Corridor.

PUSH TO REMOVE RAILS

Unique among Adirondack land-use classifications, a Travel Corridor allows motorized use.

Trains currently operated on either end of the line by the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society provide scenic tours for communities in Utica, Thendara, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.

But train tracks in between have not been updated for commercial traffic in decades.

In the past few years, Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, based largely in Saranac Lake, has launched an initiative calling to remove the rail lines.

The group topped 10,000 members in its effort to restructure the travel corridor for use as a bike/hiking/recreational path.

The discussion has been fervent at times as economic-development interests have lobbied to improve the rails, while still allowing recreational use.

‘BEST FUTURE USE’

The corridor is owned by the state, and the railroad line was placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1993.

“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,” DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald said in a statement. 

“(DOT) 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.”

Similar in tone, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said they, too, are interested in hearing what the public has to say.

“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.”

‘FLUSH OUT’

Operation of the railroad tracks on either end of the line was granted to the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society some 15 years ago.

Society President Bill Branson said Thursday that they welcome Management Plan review.

“We believe that our business plan is rock-solid and will stand on its own. We have over 100 different groups — business organizations, chambers of commerce, city and town boards — who have given us support.

“We think that this process will flush out all of the commentary, and that will be a good thing.

“Mixed use — rail with trail — is the best use for this corridor. We can make an incredible recreational use involving the train. I can understand what state is doing.”

Branson said they responded 20 years ago with a proposal, among other groups, to maintain and manage the corridor, which, he added, they have done.

“Fifteen years into it now, the Request For Proposal originally called for a 20-year lease to be given to the railroad. But that never happened. The way we view it, we have five years to go. Study of the UMP is welcome.”

NEW TRAIN SERVICE

The review process may waylay plans the Preservation Society launched last fall with Iowa Pacific Holdings LLC to add Pullman Car service from Lake Placid through Utica to New York City.

Adirondack Railroad signed a memorandum of understanding with Iowa Pacific in the deal announced last October.

“As far as somebody putting millions of dollars into a new venture, the state’s going to have to come up with an answer for it,” Branson said.

“I’m sure we will be called to speak on the Unit Plan. We’re using the corridor; we’re maintaining it. Everybody benefits from our custodianship.”

‘INCLUSIVE DIALOGUE’

Many towns and villages locally have asked DOT to reopen the Management Plan to help settle the clash in strategy over best use of the Travel Corridor.

Among them was the Saranac Lake Village Board.

Union Depot in Saranac Lake was restored in the 1990s for use by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau said upcoming state review is encouraging news.

“And I hope it leads to an inclusive public dialogue that is productive and leads to a practical plan based upon facts and the consensus of the people,” he said via email.

‘GREAT NEWS’

Lake Placid Snowmobile Club President Jim McCulley serves on the Trail Advocates Board.

“We think the entire region will benefit from the opening of the UMP process and the economic growth that will be brought about by the state doing their due diligence and doing what’s best for the regional economy,” he said.

“This is great news for a wide range of user groups, from bicyclers to snowmobilers, and for all the business that will cater to those user groups to grow our Adirondack economy.”

NEW DRAFT PLAN

DOT and DEC said they will work with the Adirondack Park Agency to schedule public meetings “to help determine what issues and factors will be considered in the environmental review.”

Then, both agencies will prepare an amended draft Unit Management Plan, presenting 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 (plan) that will be considered by the APA and ultimately approved by Commissioners McDonald and Martens,” the statement said.

DEC spokeswoman Lisa King said no dates have been set for public-input sessions.

“DEC and DOT will initiate a process this summer to engage the public in the review of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor UMP, beginning with scoping sessions,” she said of the time frame.

Email Kim Smith Dedam:kdedam@pressrepublican.com