Rail versus trail battle continues in upstate New York

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An Adirondack Scenic Railroad passenger train to Thendara, N.Y., prepares to depart the station at Big Moose, N.Y.
Alex Mayes
UTICA, N.Y. — The ongoing battle over whether parts of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad will become a rail trail is likely to intensify in December, when the state agency that oversees New York's Adirondack State Park attempts to redefine what kinds of traffic are permitted in the space.

At issue are 34 miles of rail that run from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid, N.Y. Portions of the tracks need work and are out-of-service. When New York State, which owns the land the railroad runs on, proposed in 2016 to remove the rails and convert the land to a rail trail, the railroad sued. Judge Robert Main Jr. ruled in 2017 against the state, in large part on the previous designation of the land as part of a "travel corridor." Main said removing the tracks violated the long-standing definition of travel corridor to mean either a highway or railroad corridor.

A proposed amendment to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan would define "railroad corridor" as being "for the operation of rail cars or to serve as a rail trail," says a press release from the Adirondack Park Agency. Agency representative Keith McKeever says the agency is scheduled to vote on the amendment at its Dec. 13 board meeting. McKeever says he did not know the breakdown of public comments on the proposal.

Reactions to the proposed change fall along expected lines.

"The travel corridor itself is defined in a certain way. If APA decides to redefine it, that's along the same lines that got them in trouble with the first legal action," says Bill Branson, board president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society Inc., which operates the railroad. Branson also noted that Main had cited other factors in his decision, including disputed ownership of some of the land, and questions about how the state would comply with historic preservation law when it comes to removing the rails.

Supporting the proposed amendment is Tony Goodwin. Goodwin says the original 1996 plan for the corridor contained six options, which included one for dividing it into segments that could be used for different purposes, including recreational use.

"This isn't something they're pulling out of the sky. This is something that was in the original 1996 plan." Goodwin is a founding director of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, which supports conversion of the segment to a rail trail.

The amendment fight is the latest in a long series of controversies surrounding the operation of the railroad [see "Trail vs. Rail," July 2016]. Much of the current discussion, as expressed in local media and to Trains, focuses on potential economic benefit to the communities along the path of the tracks.

"We know from economic studies that other people have done, that we can have a somewhere between $30 to $35 million impact on that area up there," Branson says. He says local merchants want the tracks to be restored and the railroad to run trains, taking tourists to their towns.

Goodwin counters that converting the land to recreational use will bring in more economic activity, and says that five of six town boards in the area voted to recommend that the rail trail be established.

One thing that both sides agree on is that the debate has occasionally turned nasty, and that there doesn't seem to be room for compromise at this point.

"It's almost demoralizing that you can't find some kind of resolution, and that we just continue to move along decade after decade with no solution," APA's McKeever says.
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