Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau heads to Tupper Lake on a high-railer pick-up truck along the railroad tracks Thursday, Sept. 13 to see whether it's feasible to build a recreation path next to the tracks. He was joined by Trustee Tom Catillaz and members of the media.
Wearing a Red Storm cap and Big Tupper Ski Area T-shirt, Mayor Clyde Rabideau embarked on a fact-finding excursion Thursday, Sept. 13 along the railroad corridor between his village and Tupper Lake to see for himself whether building a recreation trail beside the tracks is a feasible idea.
Joining him for the 21-mile trip were village Trustee Tom Catillaz, Adirondack Scenic Railroad employees Shawn Youmans (operations supervisor) and Karen Piro, and three members of the media. Youmans drove the high-railer — a red Chevy pickup truck fitted to ride the rails — about 10 mph from the Union Depot to the Tupper Lake train station.
“There’s a lot of controversy, it’s an issue, and I want to get a look at it firsthand before I make a decision,” Rabideau said from the bed of the pickup truck soon after departing. “And, of course, before I make a decision, I want to do my due diligence, get all the facts from unbiased sources, and hopefully we can get the stakeholders together and develop a consensus.”
Plans are already in the works for a multi-million-dollar recreation path to be built next to the tracks between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, spearheaded by the town of North Elba. The same could be accomplished along the tracks between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake, according to Adirondack Scenic Railroad (ASR) officials and their supporters, including a grassroots group called Next Stop! Tupper Lake. They want to extend the ASR’s tourist excursion beyond its current service — Lake Placid to Saranac Lake — to Tupper Lake.
Trouble is, members from another grassroots group called Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) want the 90 miles of tracks ripped up from Lake Placid to Old Forge. In its place, they want to build the Great Adirondack Recreation Trail, for bicycles, hikers, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.
Although everyone agrees that a recreation path should be built, one question remains. Should they build it with or without the tracks? And each group has asked local municipalities to choose a side.
Saranac Lake Village Board members want to do their homework before picking one plan over another; therefore, the mayor decided to inspect the railroad corridor for himself, without taking the words on face value from ARTA or the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.
“We hear different facts from each side, and there’s a lot of speculation,” Rabideau said.
Catillaz, who is also running for Harrietstown supervisor this fall, has ridden along the rail corridor before, on a snowmobile from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake.
“I have not been all the way in the summertime, though,” Catillaz said. “And I wanted to see what it’s like and how many wet spots there are that would have to be filled in or however they plan to do it. So far, it’s a great trip and we’re not even to Lake Clear yet.”
And so they passed Lake Colby, Charlie’s Inn, Lake Clear, St. Regis Canoe Outfitters at Floodwood Road and numerous ponds, lakes and wetlands surrounded by thousands of trees on a warm, sunny afternoon. The trip took two hours, ending around 6 p.m., and the mayor, Catillaz and members of the media met family members in Tupper Lake for rides home after refreshments at P-2’s Irish Pub.
The mayor expects that his homework on the rail trail will take months to finish.
“I’d like to see a resolution of this issue within a year,” Rabideau said. “Once we have a decision, let’s get behind it one way or another and go. I did personally speak to the governor about this issue, and I told him that we’re trying to build a consensus, and he’s waiting to hear about that consensus.”
The Village Board will be inviting stakeholders — including railway and ARTA officials — to a public meeting sometime in November and December to reach that consensus.
“Hopefully there will be a lot of respect for both sides at the meeting and try to get down to the truth and see what options there are,” Rabideau said. “Not everybody can win, but hopefully the Adirondacks can win.”
But is there room for a compromise?
“Can you find a middle ground? That’s a big question,” Rabideau said. “I’m not so sure there is, but that’s why we’re here.”
Rabideau said his favorite part of the trip was the scenery.
“It’s been a really interesting ride, a lot of vistas, a lot of beautiful views,” Rabideau said as the high-railer was pulling into the Tupper Lake train station. “The wetlands impressed me; they were absolutely gorgeous. We did catch a few mountains behind a few of the lakes. In fact, I was amazed I didn’t know all these lakes existed back here.”
Rabideau said he was surprised to find that there are some existing trails and dirt roads running along portions of the rail corridor.
Reaction to North Elba stance
Meeting the high-railer at the Tupper Lake train station were David Tomberlin — a local businessman, Chamber of Commerce president, Tupper Lake town councilman and passionate railway supporter — and Dan McClelland — publisher of the Tupper Lake Free Press and chairman of Next Stop! Tupper Lake. McClelland was at the Sept. 10 Saranac Lake Village Board meeting asking the mayor for his support and helped set up the high-railer trip.
The Tupper Lake Town Board has not taken a side on the issue, and, despite being asked by ARTA to back their cause, Tomberlin feels the town should remain neutral on the issue.
So far, only one municipality has decided to choose a side in the rail-trail debate; North Elba Town Board members Sept. 11 voted 3-2 to ask the governor to rip up the tracks in their town, essentially the entire length between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. Two board members — Supervisor Roby Politi and Councilman Derek Doty — voted against the resolution because they were worried that the timing could jeopardize the town’s current plans of building a recreation path next to the tracks. Tomberlin reflected on the North Elba decision.
“I just think it’s interesting in the sense that ANCA just got them funding for the trail that they are saying that they want for bikes and recreation, and then they’re coming out and saying they need to rip up the tracks,” Tomberlin said. “They have the funding and they’re going to have the trail, so I’m not sure why they would take such a position.”
When presenting his resolution to the board, North Elba Councilman Bob Miller said he has trouble with spending $4.5 million on a trail beside the tracks when a trail in place of the tracks could be less expensive. ARTA officials would like to see the trail from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake be funded by selling the scrap from the tracks.
All North Elba Town Board members said the priority is the recreation trail and they don’t see much of an economic benefit from the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s current train operation.
The tracks are needed from Old Forge to Saranac Lake, railway officials say, in order to service the engine used for the tourist train. Those tracks are only used twice a year — once in the spring and once in the fall — in order to transport the train cars between Old Forge and Lake Placid. ARTA supporters say that’s a waste. And North Elba’s Miller said that if the tourist train ceased functioning between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, there would be no need for the rest of the tracks.
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad also operates tourist trains based out of Thendara (just south of Old Forge). Its popular Polar Express in the holiday season runs from Utica to Thendara.
Next Stop! Tupper Lake was formed in 2002 to restore and reopen rail service initially between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid, and eventually from Remsen to Lake Placid. Learn more at nextstoptupperlake.org.
ARTA was formed in 2011 to create a world-class recreation trail along the 90-mile railroad corridor between Old Forge and Lake Placid, preferring to tear up the tracks between Old Forge and Saranac Lake. Learn more at thearta.org.