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County leaders debate postponing progress on tourist railway

QUEENSBURY Warren County leaders have asked their legal counsel to talk with state and federal officials to see whether the county can delay additional improvements to the tourist rail system without having to refund about $1 million in grant money. The countys Finance Committee members said Wednesday theyd likely be seeking to defer any major expenditures on the railway until 2010, when large payments toward the countys trash plant project end, reducing the countys budget by about $3 million. A growing sentiment among county residents to curb spending in the face of spiraling prices and a stalled economy has prompted a sense of caution on spending money now on the railroad, they said. Finance Committee Chairman Dan Stec said the rapidly soaring cost of fuel, the declining economy and the withdrawal of promised funding due to political changes in Albany had created a perfect storm that was making reconsideration of the railway funding prudent. This isnt the same situation we had when we started the railroad years ago, he said. Im now getting a lot of heat from my constituents, and Im now tending toward putting it off a couple of years. But county Budget Chairman Kevin Geraghty warned that in the long run, postponing the investment in the railway could cost taxpayers dearly. If we delay it and delay it, costs might go crazy, he said. A $400,000 expense now could mean $600,000 in 2011, and well be kicking ourselves for saying we should have bit the bullet this year. Warren County has been seeking to establish railway passenger service connecting the North Country to the Capital Region and New York City to bring in tourists year-round. The rail line now has stop-offs in Corinth, Stony Creek, Hadley-Luzerne, Thurman and Riparius. Earlier this month, the state confirmed theyd pay the Town of Corinth $1 million towards improving the rail line in Saratoga County, which is now only rated for a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour. Upgrades to 16 miles of rail bed, tracks, and crossing signals from Antone Mountain Rd. in Corinth to Saratoga Springs would prompt federal rail inspectors to allow a maximum of 30 to 45 miles per hour. But late last week, bids to upgrade signals at a crossing at Antone Mountain Rd. in Corinth were received at more than $30,000 or about double the amount expected. Repairing those signals is a first step in achieving the Saratoga-North Creek link. But Corinth officials said the federal $1 million grant wouldnt be used for the signal repairs, prompting area officials to seek supplementary funding. While Warren County Supervisors debated cutting off funding for several years, county Public Works Superintendent Bill Lamy warned that not going forward with a plan to build platforms, approaches and parking lots for stop-offs might prompt a demand from the state or federal government to repay grant money already spent on the project far more than the $68,500 of county money than would need to be committed in the next 10 days or so. The construction contracts have to be awarded by Sep. 15, or the feds are going to pull the plug, he said. Horicon Supervisor Ralph Bentley said the $68,500 should be spent to avoid demands for the grant money to be paid back. Lets move ahead, he said. Bentley sponsored a motion to commit the $68,500, depending on the results of county Attorney Paul Duseks pending negotiations with federal and state officials to suspend their mandate for refunds and cooperate with a postponement of railway investments. Johnsburg Supervisor Sterling Goodspeed said he was torn between such budget-trimming and moving forward. If we can delay, lets decide if we should, he said. But the train project is working, its created year-round jobs and 15 or 16 part-time jobs and brought 16,000 people to North Creek this past year. Stony Creek Supervisor Frank Thomas said county officials should stop thinking of the costs as expenses, but consider them as investments in vital infrastructure. This is far more than a tourist rail line, he said. The way the economy is going, it could serve as a commuter train or a supply train, bringing in food and groceries. Stec said the railway could also serve for civil defense, allowing for emergency transportation of generators, for instance. Dusek said hed immediately start negotiations with federal and state officials on potential expenditure postponement and keep the supervisors updated

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