$2.5 million Lewis County rail purchase approved, but long way still to go

Nov. 28—LOWVILLE — After a few more comments by county residents — this time all except one in favor of the intended rails-to-trails project — Lewis County legislators all approved the purchase of 31 miles of former rail corridors for $2.5 million.

The purchase of the 10.9 miles of the former Lowville & Beaver River Railroad from Lowville to Croghan and 18.3 miles of the former Mohawk, Adirondack & Northern Railroad from Lowville to Carthage, 8 miles through the village of Lowville and a half mile in the village of Lyons Falls from Batavia-based Genesee Valley Transportation has been about 20 years in the making.

The deal allows the county to keep the steel rails, buildings and "other track materials" like the railroad ties, and GVT to remove and keep all signals, railroad switches and crossing protection material as well as the right to a portion of future income from things like signs or billboards in the corridors.

Although it wasn't included in the resolution, Lewis County legislative chair Lawrence L. Dolhof confirmed Wednesday that the county decided to accept the addition of the trestle bridge over the Black River connecting West Carthage and Carthage in Jefferson County, as offered by GVT in the memorandum of understanding the two parties signed on Oct. 11, for no additional cost.

He said the decision was made based on a structural survey of all of the bridges involved in the purchase conducted by the engineering firm Barton & Loguidice since the memo was signed.

"They are structurally sound. The steel is fine. You've got some cosmetic issues ... They're really not in bad shape," according to Mr. Dolhof. "The decks are in bad shape, of course, but they have to be changed out for pedestrian use anyway."

Siderails will also need to be added to the bridges to keep trail users safe, he added, noting that the board anticipates using rail-to-trail project-related grant funding to pay for the majority of the repairs.

Research into the rail tie removal and steel rail scrapping costs has also already begun.

The chairman said it appears that the steel rail revenue will cover most if not all of the cost to remove the ties.

It has been the board's practice for the past few years to approve the majority of resolutions as a group, or "slate," because they have already been discussed in committee meetings and have full board support unless they require a yes or no vote by each legislator individually — a "roll call" vote — or a legislator flags a proposed resolution to be voted on separately. That would allow for discussion by board members after it has been moved and seconded.

Two budget-related resolutions that legally required roll-call votes were passed individually while the remaining three resolutions were passed as a slate.

After passage, Mr. Dolhof read the number and title of the rail purchase resolution for the public.

"That resolution passed and we will be moving forward with the railroad purchase," he added.

According to the terms of agreement between the county and the company, the county was required to give GVT a final answer and a formal contract for the purchase by Nov. 15. However, Mr. Dolhof said Wednesday that the county had been given an extension until early December.

Even after that contract has been signed, it will take months for the purchase to be finalized as the railroad company secures the federal Surface Transportation Board's permission to sell the railways.

"The expectation is that it will be sometime in spring or late spring ... we have time to look into everything and take the risk factor out of the purchase before we find out too late," he said.

To do that, the county will use the time to "pursue a bona fide Phase I study to make sure there's no open environmental issues before we take it on ... a search of the history to make sure there aren't any regulatory agency — including DEC — violations or any past history of them, look at what type of cleanup was done and how it was done, and all of those things. Informally, there's not supposed to be anything like that out there," he said.

Mr. Dolhof confirmed that if the deeper dive into the rail lines' histories reveals information GVT did not provide, that could result in a significantly more challenging and expensive cleanup of the tracks, the county could still back out of the deal.

During its November meeting, the village of Lowville board approved a local law banning motorized recreational vehicles including ATVs, snowmobiles and motorized bicycles from village "specialized trails" to ensure the rail-trail and a walking trail they plan for Veterans Park will be only for foot and bicycle use.

An exception was built into the law for motorized trail traffic from the trailhead to the welcome center proposed for Tops plaza in the village's Downtown Revitalization Initiative application this year.