The state of New York is accepting public comments until December 15th, as it considers whether to change direction regarding the future of the Remsen–Lake Placid Travel Corridor.
The current plan designates rail transportation as its function, a continuation of its historic use since opening in 1893.
Train service had alternated between idleness— due to inadequate market demand—and revival efforts over the past decades.
Even so, the state’s 1996 Unit Management Plan (UMP) found rail service to be the corridor’s best use.
The UMP was researched and drafted by the New York State Department of Trans-portation (DOT)—state owner of the rail corridor—and the Department of Environ-mental Conservation, which presides over Adiron-dack Park lands.
The UMP also described a railroad success path for the future.
The ensuing years have proven a mixed bag, as far as that vision.
The Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society has served as the private rail service operator, as called for by the state.
“Rail service has been well received by communities south of Tupper Lake,” said Ray Hessinger of NYS DOT, in describing the Adirondack Scenic Railroad that operates from Utica to Big Moose.
Hessinger was among state representatives that addressed a public audience at VIEW in Old Forge, on October 29.
“[Adirondack Scenic Rail-road] is viewed as a positive engine for economic growth with ridership having grown over the last number of years,” Hessinger said.
“And communities to the south, including the Tug Hill area and Utica, have a strong desire to maintain their connection to the Adirondacks and to Lake Placid through the corridor,” he said.
Theme trains have demonstrated a particularly strong ridership draw, according to Hessinger, including Thomas the Tank Engine, the Polar Express, and the Wine Trains.
But full rehabilitation of the line to Lake Placid has fallen short of the state’s 1996 outline.
So, is it time to change course? That is the question the DOT and DEC ask, as they prepare to draft an amendment.
Is it time to consider uses for the corridor that don’t involve railroads?
The Adirondack Recrea-tional Trail Advocates (ARTA) says it has a better plan.
ARTA wants to end the Adirondack train era, at least from Big Moose to Lake Placid.
The group says it wants to remove the rails and turn the corridor to a multi-use trail.
The trail would serve runners, walkers and bicyclists.
ARTA says a rail-less trail would also greatly improve snowmobiling.
But rail removal could actually end snowmobiling in the corridor entirely, according to the DEC.
No matter what the state legislates, there are no guarantees when it comes to the courts, a DEC spokesperson said.
And removal of the rails would surely invite complaints from anti-snowmobiling groups.
As for the general question of whether the 1996 train concept still makes sense, the DEC believes it does.
At least it does in varying degrees, depending on the corridor segment being talked about.
The support for continued rail service between Remsen and Big Moose is unequivocal, according to the DEC.
Businesses are behind it, along with municipalities and a public majority.
The railroad operation from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake has less support, according to Hessinger.
The Big Moose to Saranac Lake segment is yet to be rehabilitated and has no rail service.
Given the current state of the corridor, the DOT and DEC decided to revisit the 1996 UMP with the intention of updating it where appropriate.
DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald and DEC Commis-sioner Joseph Martens toured the corridor with staff, Hessinger said.
“We found that the overall condition of the corridor is better than it was in 1996. The rail infrastructure is in good condition where the trains operate between Big Moose and Remsen, and between Saranac and Lake Placid,” he said.
“But tie conditions between Big Moose and Saranac Lake have deteriorated, because there has been no investment…probably in more than 30 years. Within that segment there are some isolated erosions and stabilization issues that need to be corrected. And there’s evidence of ATV use in numerous places throughout the corridor, which is not permitted.”
Hessinger said that, based on DOT research and evaluation, the corridor’s southern-leg should hold course.
“In a nutshell, we found that the 1996 UMP for Remsen through Tupper Lake is still the best and most appropriate,” he said.
Ways to maximize the railroad’s economic benefit to the region should be evaluated, however, Hessinger said.
Those that support a rail-to-trail conversion disagree.
The dormancy of the Big Moose to Tupper Lake segment is a sign that something is not working.
Ted Christodaro of Inlet is among those that believe the corridor has a recreational value that is being wasted.
He said a multi-use trail would be much more beneficial to the region, and would serve to attract hikers and bicyclists.
Any change is going to cost money, Hessinger said, whether rails are rehabilitated or trails are constructed.
He cites the cost of rail removal as a major impediment to a trail conversion, particularly from Big Moose to Tupper Lake.
And selling the rail material would not bring in revenue against the cost of removal, according to Hessinger.
“We found the cost to take the tracks out will exceed the value of the [rails and ties],” he said.
The rails are obsolete.
“Nobody is buying these to use for new railroads,” Hessinger said. “So the majority of that material would be sold at [the lower] scrap price, not the salvage or reuse price.”
But the biggest issue of cost involves the railroad ties that are creosote treated, according to Hessinger.
The State of New York prohibits their use for anything other than that of railroads and utilities. The ties can’t be sold for landscape and other uses as in the past, Hessinger said.
“So, there’s a cost associated with their disposal,” he said.
There are also costly logistical concerns associated with the stretch from Big Moose to Tupper, according to Hessinger.
Any contractor would have difficulty performing the removal work, he said.
“There are many places where you are isolated and [dealing with] narrow embankments,” he said.
And roads to civilization can be 26 miles apart.
“Once a vehicle gets in there, there are not many places for them to turn around. So, it just adds to the cost associated with getting the materials out, because of the logistics of the work,” Hessinger said.
The estimated cost of removing rails and constructing a trail is estimated to be $11.4 million from Big Moose to Tupper Lake.
The Cost/Benefit part of the decision simply does not favor track removal, according to Hessinger.
Rehabbing the rails for train use would not be inexpensive either, should the state decide to do that, Hessinger said.
That cost would be an estimated $11 million from Big Moose to Tupper.
All things considered, however, the 1996 UMP holds up as favorable, Hessinger said.
Additionally, the state wants to review options to create and expand alternative snowmobile corridors and other recreational trails from Old Forge to Tupper.
The goal is to connect communities in that region.
Hessinger said the DOT installed counters on the corridor at Big Moose last winter. Peak usage for snowmobiles was found to be 610 a day. Usage fluctuated predictably based on snow amounts.
So, the need for better connector trails was evidenced, according to Hessinger.
As for the remaining corridor segment, that from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid, a larger percentage of the public seems interested in abandoning the railroad possibilities in favor of a mult-use trail.
But that project would carry a sizable expense, as well.
Trail Construction is estimated to cost $200,000 per mile for a total net cost of $9.8 million.
That includes a $2 million pay-back requirement by the state to the federal government.
“As part of the rehabilitation of the corridor…DOT used federal funds for the improvement. When the federal government gives you money to make the infrastructure improvements, they expect you to use that improvement for the life of whatever was built. If you abandon it or rip it out, they want their money back,” said Hessinger.
“So if you were to convert from Tupper to Lake Placid to a trail only—take up the tracks—you’re looking at up to $2 million that the State of New York would have to repay the federal government,” he said.
Whether it’s Rail or Trail, the annual maintenance costs would be similar, according to Hessinger; about $1,500 per mile, each year.
To arrive at revenue and ridership projections for a fully restored rail operation, Hessinger said a comparable was found in the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in Ohio.
The Cuyahoga is a tourist railroad that’s owned by the National Park Service.
It is a not-for-profit that carried over 210,000 passengers in 2012.
The DOT said it also explored the country for Trails that would make for suitable comparison to what would be anticipated for an Adirondack corridor trail.
“The Genesee Valley Green-way, which runs south from the Rochester area, is probably the best comparable trail that we were able to find,” Hessinger said.
DOT found that the most important determinant of success was convenient access.
“The successful Rail-Trails are those that connect directly to, or travel through, population centers… where there is a point of interest and services directly along, or near the trail for people to use,” Hessinger said.
He said these services include places to eat, places to stay, and restroom facilities.
As such, the segment of trail closest to Rochester draws 70,000 users annually, while the more rural, southern section sees fewer than 2,500.
“(The trail) sees very, very light use in the rural and remote areas, which are even far less remote than areas on [our Adirondack] corridor,” Hessinger said.
When looking at the Adiron-dack corridor, you see population centers between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake. “But, you don’t have any population centers between Tupper Lake and Big Moose,” Hessinger said.
Dick Beamish, co-founder of ARTA, disagrees with Hessin-ger’s assessments as to cost and usage projections.
In a fact sheet, Beamish called the DOT’s estimated removal costs “inflated” and “more than twice the average cost of most rail trails.”
Hessinger said the Adiron-dack rail project would involve removal challenges, some of which are largely unique.
Beamish said he has a proposal to convert the tracks to a trail using only money raised through the salvaging of the removed steel and ties.
Beamish added that a company has valued the material to greatly in exceed its removal costs.
Beamish also is also critical of the DOT’s comparing an Adirondack corridor trail to that of the Genesee Valley Greenway.
A better comparison would be to the Virgina Creeper Trail, a 34-mile trail that has been tagged “The Most Beautiful Trail in the U.S.A.”
The Creeper Trail draws 250,000 visits per year and trail-related tourism estimated at $25 million, according to Beamish.
As for the DOT comparison of a fully rehabilitated Utica-to-Lake Placid railroad to Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, that misses the mark also, according to Beamish.
“[That] excursion train draws on 3.5 million people in the Cleveland, Akron and Canton metro areas,” he said.
Rob Davies of the DEC spoke to the disparity between the cost figures of the DOT and ARTA.
He said he would not comment on the claims of outside groups, but as to his dealings with the DOT professionals, he commended their the experience and competence in researching costs and crunching numbers. Their figures can be relied upon, he said, adding that, “They are the best numbers available.”
Another group with a stated interest in the corridor is the North Country Regional Econo-mic Development Council.
They produced a plan with recommendations, according to Ray Hessinger.
“They strongly endorse retention of the entire corridor from Remsen to Lake Placid. They believe it’s one of the key strategies to maintaining and enhancing economic development for the North Country,” he said.
“One common thread through all those comments…was that the North Country needs economic development, and that the corridor is a key to unlocking its resources,” Hessinger said.
“The one division—and fairly evenly split—was on what actions to take with the corridor. [Which will] do the best job and have the most potential to bring the economic development the region so desperately needs,” he said.