The Gore Mountain Snow Train rides again.
Less than a year after negotiating a contract with Warren County, owners of the Saratoga and North Creek Railway are now seeking to re-draft the agreement to temporarily cap their ongoing payments to use the county rail line, and share the cost of about $1 million in track upgrades with the county.
At a meeting Feb. 2 between county supervisors and railway officials, a decision on the concept was postponed for at least 30 days.
The proposal calls for the county to temporarily forego its contractual 6 percent slice of the railway revenue beyond a minimum of $81,958 — in return for Iowa Pacific investing about $1 million up front in upgrades to the county track that stretches between Corinth and North Creek.
Ed Ellis, CEO of Iowa-Pacific Holdings — the parent company of the railway, and railway consultant David Simpson made a presentation to county Supervisors Feb. 2 requesting the cap in payments to the county. Five-sixths of those payments was to be set aside by the county anyway in a reserve fund for major repairs.
Ellis noted that in 2011, Iowa Pacific already spent $800,500 in repairs and maintenance, far beyond the $300,000 annually specified in the contract. Iowa Pacific also spent $280,000 in improving track at the Saratoga Springs rail station.
With Iowa Pacific earning $3 million in revenue per year, the foregone payments would total about $500,000 over five years, at which time the 6 percent payouts to the county would be reinstated. Ellis said he expected that revenue would surpass that figure, prompting the end of the temporary cap in three to four years.
Supervisors questioned whether the cap might leave a shortfall in the 2012 county budget. county Superintendent of Public Works Jeff Tennyson replied that only the $81,958 was penned into the budget as revenue. He noted that the primary impact of Iowa pacific’s proposal was that the county’s reserves wouldn’t accrue as much in the next few years.
Ellis noted that his firm had purchased insurance to cover major bridge failures, leaving a limited liability for both parties.
The track upgrades would include about 1,170 feet of new rail, and new ties — an average of 80 per mile — as well as 84,000 feet of new ballast, or crushed stone foundation under the rails. Crossings would also be replaced.
The result, Ellis said, would cut the travel time between Saratoga and North Creek by up to 15 minutes, reduce unexpected delays to the schedule and provide a smoother ride for passengers, he said.
Ellis noted, however, that the upgrades wouldn’t allow the trains to move faster than the 30 m.p.h. limit for Class 2 track under federal regulations. Improving the rails and rail bed to allow a far higher speed wasn’t feasible because of tight curves in the northern portions of the route, he said.
County officials said the upgrades were to improve the rail line for the long term and to avoid expensive short-term repairs, most likely with the expectation of carrying freight over the line.
The existing contract calls for Iowa Pacific to pay taxes on the line — about $14,000 per year — maintenance costs and track repairs that cost less than $50,000.
The county is now obligated to put away five-sixths of its revenue into a reserve fund for track repairs costing more than that amount.
Sources at the county have said that Iowa Pacific is currently seeking between $5 million and $6 million in state transportation grant money to help bankroll additional track improvement. The source said that the track improvements were being pursued by Iowa Pacific with the anticipation of transporting freight over the line.
Iowa Pacific has applied to federal transportation authorities to being hauling freight across the 28.7 stretch of tracks between North Creek and Tahawus.
Based on objections by environmental groups, the federal Surface Transportation
Board initially denied Iowa Pacific’s petition for an expedited permit to operate on the line, and the rail firm has appealed the decision, which is expected to prompt a full review by the agency.
The environmental groups seek to have the rail bed returned to Forest Preserve.
Ellis has said that the 29-7 mile stretch has always been privately held, and federal endorsement of its use is not necessary.
Iowa Pacific has announced its intent to haul thousands of tons of mine tailings away from the NL Industries mine at Tahawus.
Warren County officials support Iowa Pacific’s plan, because it would not only create needed jobs and economic activity, but clean up an expansive rock pile in what is considered a pristine area, they’ve said.
On Jan. 20, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution supporting Iowa Pacific’s intent to resume freight service along the line, and they vowed to lobby legislators to enable it.
Various towns in the region, as well as the Essex County Board of Supervisors and the Intercounty Legislative Committee of the Adirondacks have also passed resolutions supporting train travel along the line.
When the Warren County Supervisors voted for the measure, staunch railway opponent William Kenny, Glens Falls 5th Ward Supervisor, even voted for the measure — his first ever favorable vote on a railway issue. His action prompted applause and cheers from the other supervisors.