Think of it as an investment
(The following is an imagined dialogue between Gov. Cuomo and a representative of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.)
— Hello, I’m Governor Andrew Cuomo. What can I do for you today?
— My name is Larry Locomotive, and I represent the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. I’m requesting $15 million in taxpayer funds to extend our tourist train operations from Utica all the way to Lake Placid, a total distance of 120 miles.
— Wow, that’s a lot of money. Would this be a loan?
— No, we’ll never pay it back. Think of it as an investment.
— What is the financial status of your operation?
— We don’t want to discuss our finances.
— Is the $15 million all you’d need?
— We reserve the right to request lots more taxpayer money every year if our revenue doesn’t cover our expenses. You’re familiar with the expression, “In for a dime, in for a dollar?” Think of the $15 million as perhaps only a down payment.
— How much revenue do you anticipate?
— This would be the longest-distance tourist train in the nation, almost double the second-longest. Nothing like it. No way to know how many people might travel to Utica, and then pay us to ride pretty much a whole day, one way.
— So you don’t really know what your revenue might be. How about your expenses?
— Our expenses would increase substantially, but we won’t say how much. Think of it as an investment.
— Do you understand that with public funding comes public disclosure and accountability?
— We don’t really have any money. The state should bear expense and risk of this venture, but without public disclosure or accountability on our part.
— Oh-kayyyy. Can this expenditure be justified on the basis of economic growth for the Adirondack region?
— I dunno. People would drive their car or ride Amtrak to Utica, likely need to stay overnight, then spend a day riding our tourist train into the Adirondacks. Then they’d ride another day with us on the return trip, maybe another overnight in Utica, then travel home. Think of it as a train vacation, not primarily an Adirondack vacation. Zero cellphone coverage much of the way; young people will love it.
— So your extended operation would cost the taxpayers of New York state dearly, very possibly in perpetuity, but the economic benefits to the Adirondack region would be uncertain at best? How about its local transportation value?
— Actually, less than a rail trail that could accommodate all kinds of users on a year-round basis — but please don’t share that with Judge Main of the state Supreme Court, who recently ruled in favor of our railroad.
— Given our state’s competing urgent priorities, how can I possibly justify such large, open-ended spending of taxpayer funds with such uncertain benefits?
— Well, lots of people love trains. We have a handful of very vocal and persistent advocates who live many hundreds of miles away. I’m sure they and a few of their friends would ride with us at least once or twice. We’re confident we’d have perhaps a few riders all the way to the Tri-Lakes on most days, during our brief, seasonal operation. Again, think of it as an investment!
— Mr. Locomotive, are you not familiar with the concept of “reasonable return on investment” — in this case a taxpayer-funded investment? By the way, any chance you have a bridge in Brooklyn you’d like to sell to me?
David Banks is a former resident of Lake Clear now residing in Rockville, Maryland. He is a former board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates but is no longer involved with that organization.