ADIRONDACK LOOKS TO FUTURE: RAILS OR TRAILS

Advocates promote opposing visions in the Adirondacks

BRIAN NEARING STAFF WRITER
Section: Business,  Page: E1

Date: Sunday, January 29, 2012

ALBANY


The future may be at a crossroads for two historic Adirondack rail lines -- one that carried Gilded Age millionaires to luxurious Great Camps, and another that let mines ship minerals to help win World War II.


Both lines face similar questions: Is rail poised to make a comeback if gasoline prices skyrocket? Or should rails come out one day to make way for unique recreational trails through the wilderness for bikers and snowmobilers?


For the last two decades, volunteers of the not-for-profit Adirondack Railway Preservation Society have held a $1-a-year state permit to run tourist trains 141 miles between Lake Placid and Utica, once traveled by wealthy 19th-century families to their summer residences in the mountains.


Between June and October, tourist trains run on 60 miles combined from each end of restored tracks. But in the middle, about 80 miles of tracks between Carter Station, just south of Old Forge, and Saranac Lake are in such poor shape that passenger trains cannot operate legally without tens of millions of dollars in repairs.


That has Adirondack constituencies -- bikers, hikers and snowmobilers -- often at odds, saying these rail trails should go to create a year-round, one-of-a-kind destination they claim would spur new tourism and spending.


"This trail is the ideal alternative to a failed railroad," said Jim McCulley, president of Lake Placid Snowmobile Club and a member of the new Adirondack Recreation Trail Advocates. He said the cash-strapped state has little prospect of paying to upgrade the 80-mile stretch, so aging rails likely will remain useless for years.


Between 2007 and 2010, the society got more than $900,000 in support from the state Department of Transportation and still lost more than $66,000 running the line. "The moment the state subsidy stops, they cannot even turn on the lights," McCulley said.


Railway Society Vice President J. Alan Heywood said such thinking is shortsighted. "We have had limited success, but it is not fair to be judged by a track that is a third done," he said. "We have almost reached critical mass. I used to give dates when we would have the entire line repaired, but every one of them has been wrong. It could still take years. A decade would be my goal."


Heywood said the society has hopes that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could provide free labor in repairing the rail bed as a real-world training exercise, with the society coming up with the cash to pay for the materials.


And he said the rail line will become more important in future years, if the price of gasoline rises. "Once those rails are gone, getting them back in is unlikely," he said.


The railroad has influential supporters, among them state Sen. Betty Little, a Queensbury Republican.


The North Country Regional Economic Development Council, one of the groups created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to identify projects worthy of state support, backs state funding to restore the rail line. "The state will be able to pay to eventually restore the 80 miles of track," said council co-chairman Garry Douglas, president of North Country Chamber of Commerce.


About 30 miles south of Saranac Lake lie the former mines at Tahawus, also in Essex County.


Here, the Chicago-based Saratoga and North Creek Railway wants to restore and reopen a 30-mile stretch of track -- 13 miles of it in the forever-wild Forest Preserve -- connecting the mine with North Creek, which would link up with the freight networks at Saratoga Springs.


That has sparked a legal challenge from a conservation group, Protect the Adirondacks, through the federal Surface Transportation Board.


The challenge is legally complicated, revolving around an easement that the U.S. government took over state objections during World War II to construct the line to the mine and ship strategic titanium ores for military production.


The railroad bought the line -- which it believed legally included the easement, which is set to expire in 2062 -- this year from NL Industries, which stopped mining in the 1980s and shut down the line in 1989.


The railroad plans to invest $5 million to fix the tracks so it can haul out rocks discarded during ore mining, called tailings. But Protect the Adirondacks argues that the federal easement was specific to the strategic ore mining by NL Industries, and since the company stopped mining so long ago, the easement legally ceased, and was not available for the company to sell to the railroad, said John Caffry, of Protect's conservation advocacy committee.


The state Department of Environmental Conservation has also weighed in, telling the federal board there are "many unresolved legal issues" over the easement and "the uses, if any, to which the Tahawus Line may be put."


Joining the dispute is a group that also envisions the rails being turned into a recreational trail. Friends of the Upper Hudson Rail Trail negotiated for two years with NL Industries to donate the line before the railroad acquired it, said board President Curtiss Austin.


"So our trail project is put on hold, but we will keep the organization alive because an opportunity might spring up at any time," said Austin.


Attempts to reach railroad officials for comment were not successful.


Reach Brian Nearing at 454-5094 or bnearing@timesunion.com.