January 23, 2013

Editorial: Management Plan needs update


---- — If a controversy were brewing in your community, wouldn’t the best approach be to enlist an unbiased group to study it thoroughly, hear comment from all sides and then make a decision?

That’s exactly what we should think should happen with the “rail trail” controversy in the Adirondacks.

The debate centers on a 119-mile railroad track running from Lake Placid to Remsen, which is near Utica. Right now, about 10 miles of that track in our region is being used in the summer for a tourist train that runs between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. A plan is approved and in motion to build a recreation trail alongside the tracks from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake.

Proponents of a recreational trail would rather see the train tracks torn up and a multi-use — snowmobile, biking, hiking, cross-country — trail established from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake and eventually on to Old Forge. They believe it will be a huge boon for tourism and say the tourist train isn’t adding much to tourism numbers anyway.

On the other side of the issue are people who believe the section of track can host all those uses in concert: maintaining railroad use while allowing recreational activities alongside the track. They focus on the potential for expanding railroad use by restoring the entire length of track to Utica.

The debate has many nuances, and each side, we believe, can put forth a convincing argument that its plan would serve the best interests of the people and economy of our region.

We aren’t taking a side in this debate because we don’t feel all the facts are available, for one major reason: the New York State Department of Transportation’s Unit Management Plan for the corridor has not been updated since 1995.

A smattering of studies and surveys have been published in the past four years, but all were commissioned by forces for one side or the other. People from both sides of the debate have used facts artfully plucked from the studies to declare their position to be the only true direction.

The state’s unit management plans are supposed to be revised every five years, and this one is long overdue. The process is precise and lengthy, sometimes taking four or five years to complete. It would require, for example, public hearings in each town through which the railroad line crosses, a gathering of input that we strongly encourage.

We think it is crucial that DOT begin the process of updating the Unit Management Plan now, even though that may initially be costly, so that government officials and private-enterprise representatives have the data and input they need to make an informed decision about the best route to take.

That could derail the controversy and bring a clearer answer on corridor use, which carries so much economic and tourism potential.