NORTH CREEK - Warren County may soon be out of the railroad business, as officials are exploring ways to remove themselves from the 16-year scenic railroad project without being required to pay back over $2 million in state and federal grants already spent.
"We are looking at two possible paths for the railroad project," Warren County Attorney Paul Dusek said June 10. "We have developed a request for proposals for a new operator for the 2011 season, but we are also in a dialogue with DOT where Warren County would potentially no longer operate the train at all."
The county-funded railroad project is operated primarily from the North Creek Depot by the Upper Hudson River Railroad Co.
"I like the idea of untangling ourselves from the railroad," Queensbury Supervisor and Warren County Finance Committee Chairman Dan Stec said. "We gave it a good 'college try' for the last 16 years and now realize it isn't working out." Over the last several years, Warren County has spent approximately $2.8 million - $429,000 from the local taxpayer - to construct railroad platforms in Stony Creek, Thurman and Luzerne. UHRR announced last month that it doesn't intend to stop at the three new platforms and that the county had not fulfilled their contractual obligation to build stations.
For nearly two decades, the railway was envisioned as a way to bring thousands of tourists into the region year-round, for skiing, summer vacations and fall foliage tours.
But frustration among taxpayers and supervisors has intensified recently as costs and setbacks have multiplied, including a washout last month which rendered the track south of Riparius impassable, requiring more than $100,000 in repairs.
The railroad project has cost around $12 million - $629,000 locally raised - while generating little if any revenue to county coffers.
According to Dusek, the county is exploring two very different approaches to the railroad project.
A request for proposals seeking to replace UHRR as the operator is ready to be released as of June 12. But supervisors voted to delay the release as the county negotiates with the state to get out of the project altogether.
County officials have assumed that if Warren County abandons the project it would be obligated to return over $2 million in state and federal grants.
But Dusek said that there is a potential to abandon the project without owing the money if the rail lines were used for another activity, like a bike path or snowmobiling trails.
But not all supervisors are ready to rip up the rails.
"It seems to me that all of this talk of the railroad's demise is a bit premature," Stony Creek Supervisor Frank Thomas said. "We have only tried one operator and maybe another one would be more successful."
But the minds of the growing list of anti-railroad supervisors may be already made.
"People would like to find a way to back out of this," Stec said. "We just have to do it right in a responsible way."