CORINTH — Environmental groups, biking enthusiasts and some government leaders are dreaming of a recreation trail running from Saratoga Springs to Tahawus on the southern edge of the Adirondack High Peaks.
Town of Corinth Supervisor Richard Lucia, though, is dreaming of a new industrial user based at the former International Paper mill site.
“Anything there that would create a few jobs,” Lucia said in an interview last week.
Both visions, at least in their fullest forms, rely on the Corinth-owned rail line that runs from Saratoga Springs to just north of Corinth, where a long stretch of Warren County-owned rails runs along the Hudson River into the heart of the Adirondacks. Trail advocates hope to convert the length of the rail corridor from Saratoga to Tahawus to a multi-use trail for walkers, cyclists, snowmobilers and others.
A Warren County Board of Supervisors committee last month approved a motion to begin a formal abandonment process of the county’s rail corridor, a process that would give private companies one last chance to come forward with a case that the rail corridor can be viable for a freight operation. If no such freight use can be found, the federal Surface Transportation Board can relinquish jurisdiction of the corridor, opening up numerous options for Warren County to develop new uses of the corridor. That could mean finding a company to run passenger trains on the rail – companies have tried but failed to establish one over the years – and it could mean conversion to a recreation trail.
Warren County Administrator Ryan Moore last week said the county has spent the last year working to find a freight user for its rail corridor but that negotiations ceased last month with United Rail of Nevada, the final of three companies that had presented commercial proposals for the county’s portion of the rail corridor.
The town of Corinth, however, has kept up negotiations with United Rail, looking to pen a deal for the company to take over use of the town-owned rail corridor. And Lucia said the company also was expressing interest in the mill site, which is connected to the main rail corridor by a spur in Corinth. He said other potential rail users were showing an interest in case a deal doesn’t materialize with United Rail. Lucia said he didn’t yet know how United Rail intended to use the corridor or potentially the mill site.
Corinth in part took ownership of the rail corridor running through Saratoga Springs and Greenfield to sweeten the pitch the town could make to potential buyers at the International Paper mill site, which closed in 2002. The town has been seeking new mill site tenants for years but with no success.
“One of the main reasons we wanted to get involved in the railroad to begin with was to entice some businesses to use rail in and out of [the mill site],” Lucia said. “We aren’t giving up at this point, I’m not saying we won’t, but at this point we are not.”
Messages seeking comment from United Rail last week were not returned. But an executive with United Rail told the Glens Falls Post-Star in November that the company was still in talks with Corinth even though negotiations with Warren County had fallen through, suggesting the company was interested in establishing a tourist train in Saratoga County.
“Our intention is create excursion trains from Manhattan to Saratoga,” the executive told the Post-Star.
Moving toward a trail?
Warren County may be moving toward establishment of a trail with or without a Corinth connection south into Saratoga – but that is also still a few big steps from moving forward.
When the Warren County Public Works Committee approved a motion 9 to 2 to move forward with abandonment of its rail corridor – a move that will go up for full board approval later this month – some supervisors called for a study of how the rail corridor could be used if the abandonment process goes forward. Some said it was clear to them after more than a year of unsuccessfully seeking a commercial freight operator that a trail was the most viable use of the rail corridor.
“I don’t think it’s economically viable to do anything else but a trail,” Warren County Supervisor Michael Wild of Queensbury said at the November committee meeting.
Committee members discussed seeking state and federal grants to research and plan for a potential conversion to a recreation trail.
Moore, the county administrator, at the committee meeting and in a later interview, reiterated that the abandonment process does not mean the county could only consider a trail: Passenger train operations, though not freight, would still be viable after abandonment. But he said the abandonment process, if given full board approval, would be the next step in determining the corridor’s future.
“The first step in doing a trail, before we even start to get grant money together, is to go through the abandonment process,” Moore said in the interview, adding that if the county moved forward with a trail it would look to maintain current recreational uses in the rail corridor like a company that operates bikes that run along the rail lines.
Advocacy groups focused on Adirondack issues have also taken a liking to the vision of establishing a recreational trail corridor running south to north along the Hudson River. Those groups have called for state funding to help Warren County study the potential of a trail, noting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s broader interest in expanding trail networks across the state.
A separate rail-to-trail conversion has played out in recent years on a state-owned rail corridor between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. A plan for the conversion has been presented at recent public hearings and in the coming months could go up for final state approval. As planned that trail could be used by bikers, walkers, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and others.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, one of the groups pressing for state funding to research a Warren County trail conversion, said he thinks the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid trail conversion could help generate interest and momentum in the Warren County project.
Making an economic argument in support of recreation trails, Bauer noted that for decades commercial freight use has not materialized on the Saratoga to Tahawus corridor and argued a trail would give people a reason to visit the many small towns and communities that sit along the corridor – from Corinth to Hadley to Riparius to North Creek and beyond.
“It seems nobody has stepped forward over the past couple of decades, where both the [International Paper] site in Corinth and the Tahawus mine have not been operating,” Bauer said. “We think now is the time to look at other uses which could actually create a new public amenity.”
He said Corinth would be key to connecting the Saratoga Springs population center to a future trail but not necessary for Warren County to establish a trail on its own.
“Corinth clearly would be an important part for a vital link really to connect Saratoga Springs to Warren County,” Bauer said. “But Warren County certainly could pursue and would have a viable trail if it just went [north] from Hadley and Luzerne.”
Bauer said the stretch of rail in Warren County is “the dramatic and scenic part” of the overall corridor, noting that much of the county’s rail corridor runs along the Hudson River, takes in sweeping mountain views and in places goes as much as six or seven miles between road crossings.
But Lucia didn’t seem swayed by the argument that a recreation trail could be an economic boon to the town, bringing people to local restaurants and attractions as they move north and south along the trail.
“We’ll wave if they go by,” Lucia said when asked if he thought having trail users from Saratoga and elsewhere passing through Corinth could benefit the town.