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Editorial: Tracks vs. trails in Adirondacks

Tuesday, September 17, 2013
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If the Adirondack Scenic Railroad was looking for support in its quest to keep the state-owned rail corridor between Old Forge and Lake Placid intact, so it can someday run a tourist train on that 90-mile stretch, it got just the opposite from the town of North Elba last week. Not only did the town vote to scrap the plan for a bike path alongside the existing train operated by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, it asked that the tracks be removed and replaced by a bike path.

That’s exactly what a group called Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) has been pushing the last year or so for the entire Old Forge-Lake Placid corridor, and it has growing support from residents and local officials.

North Elba’s action comes at a key time in the debate. The state is holding a series of public hearings on whether to change its unit management plan for the corridor, which was adopted in 1995 and calls for a tourist train. That’s because, after all these years, Adirondack Scenic Railroad still has no realistic plan for a tourist train, and running one would require an estimated $40 million (presumably from the state) to repair the badly deteriorated track.

The railroad advocates have been saying there’s no need to choose, that it’s possible to have a train with a bike path alongside it. But such an arrangement would add greatly to the cost and create engineering and environmental problems as the bike path passed lakes, rivers and wetlands.

Those two factors, cost and wetlands, weighed heavily in North Elba’s decision. Even though the federal government has committed more than $4 million in grant money for the adjacent bike trail, North Elba would still have to match it with about $750,000. And the town recently learned that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has new wetlands regulations that will require a more costly and time-consuming environmental review.

Meanwhile, the town knew how much — or, rather, little — the train has been doing for the region in terms of tourism and economic development. And it has seen the various studies done for both sides, all of which show that the bike trail would bring far more users — locals as well as visitors, hikers and snowmobilers as well as bicyclists — at a much lower cost than would the train.

The state should consider those same studies and reach the same conclusion North Elba did. Let the tracks between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake be removed and replaced by a bike path, and let the same be done for the entire 90-mile corridor.

 
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