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Off the Northway: Waiting game continues for railroad plan

Saturday, May 5, 2012
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Up past North Creek, the discerning driver who’s being distracted by the beauty of the Hudson will thump over abandoned railroad tracks embedded in Route 28.

These days, weeds, grass and even pines are growing up through the rails. Whoever wants to run a train through there again is going to have their hands full.

That isn’t stopping Iowa Pacific Holdings from trying, though, and the company’s efforts are gaining momentum.

The Chicago-based company, parent of the Saratoga and North Creek Railway, wants to re-open 30 miles of track from North Creek to the former titanium mine at Tahawus, so crushed stone can be hauled out.

The railroad applied for a federal permit a year ago, yet the matter still sits before the Surface Transportation Board in Washington — and the only question so far is whether formal hearings will be needed. No one ever compared the federal government to a speeding locomotive.

The Saratoga and North Creek Railway launched a tourist line between those two fine communities last summer. It was a hit — and the “Polar Express” special at Christmas was a home run — but it’s worth noting that the planning, government approvals and track restoration took 25 years.

The tracks from North Creek to the Tahawus mine in Newcomb were built to get titanium ore out during World War II, but they haven’t been used in 30 years. The mining left enormous piles of crushed stone behind, gravel Iowa Pacific would dearly love to be able to haul. Some is now trucked out, but the mine owner estimates there’s as much as 100 million tons stockpiled there.

Adirondack local governments and elected officials have endorsed the plan. Later this month, Saratoga County should be joining Hamilton, Essex and Warren counties in endorsing the idea. The county’s Economic Development Committee unanimously passed an endorsement resolution this week.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said county Board of Supervisors Chairman Tom Wood, R-Saratoga.

The conservation group Protect the Adirondacks! is opposed because the railroad runs through the state Forest Preserve, which under the state constitution must remain “forever wild.” So far, that’s the only opposition.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation was initially on the fence, but in March both DEC and the state Department of Transportation came down on the railroad’s side.

DEC sought and received assurances that the rail line could be used as a snowmobile route in the winter, while DOT officials said allowing the ore to be hauled out by train furthers a state policy of promoting railroads.

“It would reduce truck traffic within the Adirondack Park, with corresponding reductions in emissions and wear and tear on the region’s highways, and will foster economic development within the region,” the executive deputy commissioners of DEC and DOT wrote in a joint letter to the Surface Transportation Board in March.

There is no indication when the Surface Transportation Board will make a decision.

 
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