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Railroad defense doesn’t hold up

October 4, 2011
By Lee Keet , For the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates Steering Committee

We are all Phil Gallos fans and appreciate Phil focusing on facts versus propaganda. However, what he claims in his Sept. 16 Guest Commentary is "propaganda," and then refutes with supposed facts, is really very misleading stuff.

But before addressing the specifics, we suggest that Phil misses the real point: THE CURRENT RAILROAD DOES NOTHING FOR THE COMMUNITIES ALONG THE CORRIDOR. Too few people ride it, and the costs, whether called subsidies or transfers, are too much to spend in return for so little received. And no one disputes the findings of the recent Camoin study that a recreational trail will bring more jobs and more new money into our depressed economy. It is time to give up the fanciful notion that a 19th-century vehicle will be our salvation when the most popular single form of recreation in the U.S. is biking.

Now to Phil's specific points. What is a subsidy? If the taxpayer foots the bill for a private enterprise, that, to us, is a subsidy. Phil notes that the Camoin study stated that the DOT reimbursements to the Adirondack Scenic Railroad for the corridor averaged $158,000 per year for nine years. If we divide the peak of 14,000 riders into $158,000, we get slightly more than $11 per rider, which is the per-rider "subsidy" Phil disputes. Maybe this is not a "subsidy," but it is taxpayer money ill spent, in our opinion. And the numbers Camoin researchers were given by the ASR are more than suspect.

As one of us (Jim McCulley) reported in this paper in February, according to the last three years of ASR tax returns, the state has provided it $909,256, with $383,898 going to track maintenance and the rest being used to continue operations. That's $65 per rider if you believe the highly suspect 14,000 peak ridership figure, three times more if you use the 4,100 riders computed by dis-entangling their tax filings. Whatever the true number, most of the cost of running the railroad is being paid by us, the taxpayers, not by tourists.

And another "fact" Phil cites is that total trail construction costs for the trail would be $17.1 million. As Camoin noted, this assumes inflation of 17 percent for six years. Last time we looked, annual inflation was closer to 1 percent. And the theoretical $14.6 million cost, as Camoin also noted, was based on using professional engineering and construction firms to carry out the work, with no contributed materials or labor. Carl Knoch of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, who spoke at the Aug. 31 Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates meeting in Lake Placid, noted many trails have been built with volunteer labor at $135,000 per mile, or well under $5 million for our 34 miles. His entire presentation is at www.TheARTA.org (where, incidentally, more than 500 people have signed up in less than a month as trail advocates).

We have numerous local quarries and volunteers we believe could help build a trail for that $135,000 per mile, or even less. Add the $2.7 million for track and tie salvage, assume volunteers could remove them for far less than the cost projected if contractors do the work for $2.1 million, and you have no less than $600,000, and probably way more, for building the trail. It is highly likely that the salvage value over the removal cost plus the grants in place, if redirected, could pay for the entire run to Tupper Lake.

More reality: As noted above, the $158,000 per year of funds transferred to maintain the rails (not a subsidy, we guess) does not include capital upgrades - e.g., the more than $100,000 the state just spent putting in that new crossing grade at the southern entry to Saranac Lake on Route 86. There are 29 (!) other crossings that, sooner or later, will need repairs - not subsidies, just tax dollars. One of our team (McCulley) asked for documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act and received bills 5 inches thick, all paid for by the taxpayer, for the ASR, in 2009. Only seven of the 740 pages received were for track work. The rest consisted of electric bills for crossings and parts to fix their equipment.

Phil's statement that the unit management plan requires that "rail trackage would remain in place over the entire 119-mile length of the corridor during a rail marketing period" fully supports our position that the line has not proven to be very marketable - in fact, it is hard to see all but a handful of passengers on any given run. The test period for marketing the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake tourist train has gone on for 12 years, and ASR has failed the test. There is clearly no viable market for this enterprise.

Phil also says, "The grant money in hand is allocated to complete the trail-with-rail to Saranac Lake." Rather, the proposal to build a trail to Ray Brook through mostly wetlands is all that MIGHT be funded. Until bids are received for the Lake Placid-to-Ray Brook section, it is very unsure that the funding will even get the trail that far. And to get even those funds, $1.1 million MORE must be raised from matching sources. Chuck Damp made that all very clear in his Sept. 6 Guest Commentary.

The idea that many workers will commute to Ray Brook on this trail, if ever built, is simply fanciful. Practically none of the Adirondack Park Agency, Troop B or Department of Environmental Conservation workers live in pricey Lake Placid. And the trip to anywhere from Ray Brook, other than back to Lake Placid, without that logistically difficult and unfunded connector to Saranac Lake, would be about as dangerous as bike trips get.

But to our main point, the railroad does nothing for the communities along the corridor while a recreation trail would do a great deal. It would attract hundreds of thousands of users year-round, and it would stimulate our local economy just as similar trails have proved a boon to business elsewhere in this state and nation. Let's build one; we need the revenue and jobs it would bring.

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Lee Keet lives in Saranac Lake. The ARTA Steering Committee also includes Jim McCulley, Dick Beamish, Tony Goodwin and Joe Mercurio, all local residents.

 
 

 

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