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Adirondack Scenic Railroad debate heats up in Utica

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By ANNA MEILER

UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) -- The Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Conservation held the third of four public meetings on Monday to collect public comments on the future of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor.

It's been a contentious debate for years, and on Monday, over 130 people came out to voice their opinions in Utica. The turnout at the two previous meetings in Old Forge and Ray Brook also exceeded the expectations of DOT and DEC officials.

"We're listening to the various comments people have about how the corridor is being used and we're getting some very diverse opinions, you know, there's certainly no consensus on this corridor about how to use it in the future," said Raymond Hessinger, the Director of Freight and Passenger Rail Bureau, New York State, Department of Transportation.

After listening to the public, they'll decide whether or not to revise the 1996 Corridor Unit Management Plan, which states the tracks should be left as is and that trails should be built alongside them wherever possible.

The tracks stretch 118 miles from Remsen to Lake Placid. An organization called the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates wants to tear up the tracks and put in a trail for hiking, biking, and snowmobiling.

"[Rail-trails are] the new thing and that's what's making money and that's what's bringing towns that were dying off, back up. New businesses are moving in left and right. Bike repair shops, ice cream shops, mom and pop stores that we need to have the local entrepreneurs be able to make a dollar. That's what the American dream's all about. It's not there anymore," said Jim Rolf, trail coordinator, New York State Snowmobile Association.

The New York State Snowmobile Association has a permit to use the tracks from December to May, but say they lose 30 percent of their season due to safety concerns when the snow melts and the tracks are exposed. They say a better trail for snowmobiling will be better for business.

"If you ask a business owner in Remsen, who I just spoke to, they get more business out of snowmobilers than they do out of the train people even though he is a train stop. So, that's just snowmobiling. The biking and the hiking will be the biggest thing," said Rolf.

But the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which has been operating a portion of the tracks since the early 90s, wants to not only keep the tracks, but restore a deteriorated portion between Big Moose and Saranac Lake so trains can go straight from Utica to Lake Placid. They hope this will expand their customer base and help boost the economy in the North Country.

"It's bringing people to the area, it's an economic generator. Our annual revenue is around $2 million. We're a non-profit, so all the money from ticket sales that comes into the railroad is being spent on payroll, on fuel, on vendors, on working with local restaurants, so that's money that's all coming back into the local economy," said Bethan Maher, Executive Director of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society.

Rail backers also said keeping the tracks, means keeping jobs.

"You're losing an economic generator. There are jobs that are going to be lost in the Mohawk Valley. We're one of the biggest customers of the freight line so you're not just hurting our business, but you're hurting other businesses," said Maher.

The final meeting is in Tupper Lake Tuesday from 6-9 p.m. You can also submit written statements until Sept. 25 to NYSTravelCorridor@dot.ny.gov, send a fax to 518-457-3183, or mail  to Raymond F. Hessinger, Director, Freight & Passenger Rail Bureau, NYS Department of Transportation, 50 Wolf Road, POD 54, Albany, NY 12232.

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