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Rail-trail debate has data

Difference is more in emotions than cost

January 26, 2011
By JESSICA COLLIER, Enterprise Staff Writer

TUPPER LAKE - Whether the Tupper Lake-to-Lake Placid rail corridor is rehabilitated so trains can run between the two towns or the rails are pulled up and it's turned into a recreational trail, there would be an economic benefit to the region.

"Anything is better than doing nothing," said David Wolff, chairman of AdkAction.

His nonpartisan organization released a study at a Tuesday night forum at The Wild Center that explored both the construction costs and economic impacts of choosing either rails or trails for the corridor.

Article Photos

AdkAction Chairman David Wolff fields questions at The Wild Center Tuesday night in a discussion about the Tupper Lake-to-Lake Placid rail corridor that he tried to keep about facts rather than turning into a debate.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)

The first option the study considered is bringing the existing rails between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake up to a high standard and extending Adirondack Scenic Railroad's current Lake Placid-to-Saranac Lake train runs to Tupper Lake. The study showed that this would be the cheapest option, costing around $10.6 million, but would bring in fewer new tourism dollars to the region - about $760,000 annually.

The second option, ripping up the rails and installing a paved recreational trail system, would cost more, according to the study - $14.6 million - but would bring in more economic benefits, to the tune of $1.2 million a year.

A third option, a temporary version of the second option that would keep the train tracks in storage for 10 years, would cost the most - $18.8 million - since it wouldn't get any money for salvaging the rails and would include storage costs for them. It would have the same economic benefit as the second option.

The study included a number of assumptions and limitations. For instance, it only looked at upgrading the mostly class I rails to a class III standard, which would allow trains to travel up to 60 miles per hour. Several people at the forum argued that class II would have been sufficient and cheaper.

It also only looked at the economic benefit of bicyclers and snowmobilers if a trail is installed, arguing that hikers, cross-country skiers and other trail users have so many other quality trails in the region that they likely wouldn't come to the area just to use a potential rail corridor trail.

It also didn't look at the potential costs and benefits of either of the options along the whole corridor between Lake Placid and Utica, nor did it look at the potential for reducing costs through volunteer labor or other means.

The study also can't measure benefits other than economic ones, said Bill Branson, president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs the Adirondack Scenic Railroad on a nonprofit basis. He said the rails are a part of the cultural history of the region, and tearing them up would be a loss in terms of the character of the region.

Branson said he disagreed with some of the assumptions in the study, saying he thinks the train's ridership brings in more tourist dollars than it considered. The study assumed that the railroad's current ridership, which the Adirondack Scenic Railroad placed at 14,000 people per year, would grow by 75 percent, adding 10,500 new riders, but it only assumed that each rider would spend a half day in the area. About 80 percent of train riders come from outside the area, from an average distance of about 200 miles away, and Branson said it's unlikely people coming from that far away would only spend a half-day in the area.

Gary Beaudette, head of the Tupper Lake Snowmobile Club, said the study is a good start.

"You've got to start somewhere," he said.

But he said he seriously doubted the study's numbers estimating the potential impacts of bringing more snowmobilers into the area if the rails are ripped up. Other snowmobile supporters at the meeting seemed to agree, with a good contingent of them grumbling every time the numbers were shown on the large screen in the museum's Flammer Theater.

Tupper Lake town Supervisor Roger Amell also questioned the numbers, saying people will come back regularly to use snowmobile trails, but people are unlikely to ride the railroad more than once. He also argued with the number of weeks Camoin Associates considered the snowmobile season, saying that there would be an additional 12 to 14 weeks to the season without the rails, which stick up through the snow, rather than the eight weeks Camoin assumed.

But Camoin Associates' Carmen Lorentz, who assembled the economic impact side of the study, said the numbers are an average, and while some snowmobilers spend hundreds of dollars on food, lodging and other activities, not all of them do.

"We went to great lengths to come up with our assumptions and estimates," Lorentz said.

She said people often tend to reject assumptions if they don't fit into their personal experience, and the kinds of snowmobilers who would show up at the forum are probably the ones who are passionate about it and spend a lot of time and money on it.

Lorentz acknowledged that there are limitations to the study, but she said it is useful to put numbers on the table for each option.

Wolff agreed, saying his group wanted to start a debate in the communities about the corridor that would focus less on emotion, as it has in the past, and more on facts and numbers.

He said the communities involved should now take the data, try to come to a consensus on what to do with the corridor and start working together so the region can see some economic benefit from it.

But Wolff said his organization doesn't plan to facilitate that debate. He wants his group to fade to the background of the issue.

Amell said he would be willing to participate in a conversation about the corridor, though he's not going to make it his top priority.

"I wouldn't want to spearhead it, but I would support it 100 percent," Amell said.

Branson said his group has been willing to have the conversation for years, but he said he continues to believe it's possible to have both a rail and a trail.

He said AdkAction got the right answer to the question it asked; it just asked the wrong question.

Either way, coming to a consensus on anything when the debate is so heated will be difficult, Branson said.

"I think it's going to be a long process," Branson said.


Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 25 or



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