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Approving railside trail was a mistake

September 20, 2011
By Art Lussi

Thanks, but no thanks for money to be put into a recreational path next to the rails on the way to Ray Brook.

I blame myself for approving the wetland fill along the tracks because we Adirondack Park Agency commisssioners voted for a rail-with-trail path in 2007. It sounded good then, but the more I thought about a rec trail next to train tracks, with wire cables as a divider, the more I questioned my decision.

I have since cross-country skied and walked much of the rail corridor to Ray Brook from behind my house on Averyville Lane in Lake Placid. Imagine a distance of 10 feet from the rail begins a 10-foot wide path through muck and beaver dams. (The path will be 20 feet from the rails in much of the 4.5-mile route.) The fill required will be staggering, the elevated platforms pricey and the scenery distorted with train tracks cresting over one's shoulder.

I truly regret permitting the rail with trail with taxpayer money. I believe the rails should come up and a path should be created in a rails-to-trails project. I know millions have been spent restoring the rail corridor from Utica to Lake Placid and we have tried to have a passenger tourist train for 11 years, but it is still barely an attraction. I have yet to hear from a fellow business owner that the train has boosted business.

I have researched the railroad's Form 990 tax returns, and I can no longer support our tax dollars being spent on such a failing venture. In 2008, the railroad did $803,602 in program service revenue in all of its rides along the line from Utica to Lake Placid. I could not break out the Lake Placid-to-Saranac Lake portion of revenue, but I could see the railroad spent $201,536 in advertising and promotion that year, with total functional expenses coming to $1,610,627. (That's down about $800,000, in case you are counting.) Government grants to the railroad running through the heart of the Adirondacks in 2008 were $421,259 while other contributions, gifts and grants were another $148,961. The numbers do not add up; hence the prior word, failing. I picked 2008 because it was pre-recession, and some nine years into the train's business life in Lake Placid. How would your businesses do with state grants from $300,000 to $700,000 annually?

I know a great number of people have donated vast amounts of their valuable time, sweat and equipment to keep the railroad alive, but we cannot keep pouring money into a hopeless business. Some say wait for freight needs - what freight, and where will we need to transport it? Some say wait till gas gets even higher - guess what? It is already high in Europe, and trucking and driving and busing still rule outside the cities.

If Tupper and Saranac Lake want a tourist train, let them try. Estimates for rail improvement from Tupper to Saranac are in the tens of millions. Let's pull up the rails from Saranac to Lake Placid and give a recreational path a 10-year shot; if the path fails, we can always put the rails right back down. (It's called rail banking, and it's done all over the country).

Some will criticize me for taking a stance on this issue as well as daring to talk about the misuse of taxpayer money, but isn't it time we picked projects that really need help from the state and federal government like sewer and water infrastructure, bridges and roads, and broadband?

I know, just spend it before we lose it. Well, that is just wrong!


Art Lussi lives and works in Lake Placid, where he manages the Crowne Plaza Resort & Golf Club, which his family owns. He is also a state Adirondack Park Agency commissioner.



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