Change is hard to come by, especially when nostalgia clouds the picture. A current example may be seen in the debate over the best use of the old railroad corridor that connects Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake - a 34-mile segment of the line that traverses a wild and scenic landscape of lakes, forests, hills and wetlands.
Though the debate can seem complicated, the basic issue is simple. A tourist train has been running for a dozen years on the 9-mile section between Lake Placid (the end of the line) and Saranac Lake. It has cost taxpayers millions of dollars with nothing to show for it in economic benefits. Rather than stimulating tourism, the train has impeded it.
By monopolizing the corridor, it is preventing the use of the railroad bed for a year-round recreational trail that would, based on the success of rail-to-trail conversions elsewhere, attract large numbers of money-spending visitors, including an influx of bicycle riders from May through October and snowmobilers from December through March. It would also be a wonderful amenity for residents seeking safe, healthy, enjoyable exercise in a superb natural setting.
(Photo 85.1062b, Adirondack Research Room, Saranac Lake Free Library)
Now that the movement to remove the rails and replace them with a multi-use trail is gathering momentum, the supporters of the tourist train have proposed an impossible "compromise." Let's have both the railroad AND a recreational trail, they suggest, and make everybody happy. Yet the cost of building a separate, side-by-side trail would run at least $400,000 a mile, according to latest estimates,* and the cost of upgrading the rail line would, according to a study last year by Camoin Associates, run $300,000 a mile.** That's a minimum of $700,000 a mile for doing both a rail and trail. Even if this fanciful project was affordable and environmentally permissible, which it isn't, compare it to the cost of $135,000 a mile, based on similar projects elsewhere, for converting the existing bed to a recreational trail.***
The rail-with-trail compromise ignores the environmental consequences of tampering with wetlands, beaver ponds and lakes. And it overlooks the stark economic reality that the tourist train, which has been operating between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake for more than a decade, has not delivered. Upgrading the tracks and extending the train service to Tupper Lake, as the RR boosters propose, would compound and perpetuate a costly failure.
On Aug. 30, a new citizen group, the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, held its first public meeting in Lake Placid to rally support for removing the tracks, selling them for salvage and using the profits to surface the bed with finely crushed stone. The end result will be a wilderness bikeway unique in the United States and a dramatically improved snowmobile trail. Nearly 200 people attended the kickoff meeting. ARTA's membership is expected to exceed 1,000 trail advocates by the end of this month.
Despite strong and growing public support for a rail-to-trail conversion, however, official opposition to replacing the rail with a trail remains strong.
The Adirondack Park Agency, the state entity responsible for protecting the Park's natural resources, has renewed a permit allowing a parallel trail to be constructed along the 4.5- mile stretch from Lake Placid to Ray Brook, despite the environmental disruption.
The North Country Chamber of Commerce wants to extend the tourist train from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake, as does the Adirondack North Country Association. Both organizations were set up to improve the economy and business climate of the region, yet both seem intent on blocking a much more productive use of the railroad bed.
Historic Saranac Lake, a group devoted to preserving culturally significant buildings such as our Victorian train station, tuberculosis cure cottages and Dr. Trudeau's famous TB lab on Church Street, opposes removal of the tracks because, they point out, the rail corridor is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Never mind that this designation couldn't be amended. And never mind that adaptive reuse of the rail corridor as the Park's pre-eminent bicycle path, with interpretive signs in kiosks along the way, could do far more to commemorate the region's colorful history than retaining miles of rusting rails and rotting ties.
The town board for North Elba, which includes the village of Lake Placid, admits that salvaging the tracks and utilizing the bed for a recreational trail would be the cheapest and best use of the corridor. The board has gone on record as much preferring an easy, safe bikeway linking Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. But after years of butting heads with the tourist-train lobby, they've evidently given up on having the tracks removed and are willing to settle for building a separate trail running halfway from their village to Saranac Lake.
All of which attests to the power of nostalgia, a longing for the Good Old Ways and Good Old Days. Most of us love to hear that evocative train whistle as it echoes through our hills and valleys, even though the passenger cars usually appear nearly empty as the train toots merrily by at the crossings That this failed enterprise has gained so much political support also attests to the persuasiveness of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which operates the line and whose dedicated staff of mostly volunteers believe passionately in their cause.
Meanwhile, the forces favoring a recreational trail continue to gather steam, convinced that the time has come to face facts, end the tourist-train experiment and fulfill the potential of one of our greatest economic and recreational assets.
Dick Beamish is a resident of Saranac Lake and a founding member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. For more information, visit www.TheARTA.org.
* Currently the North Elba town board is hoping to consolidate a total of $3.2 million in federal grants to build a trail the 4.5 miles from Lake Placid to Ray Brook, combining this amount with another million dollars that they hope to raise privately. This brings their total projected cost of building a separate trail to more than $4 million. If they need to use this money to extend the trail to Ray Brook, the cost would be $888,000 a mile. If this is enough funding to extend the trail to Saranac Lake, for a total distance of 9 miles, the cost would be $444,000 a mile. Compared to these expenditures, my figure of $400,000 is conservative.
** The Camoin study actually projected the cost of repairing and upgrading the 34 miles of railroad line from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake to be $12,500,000, including six years of inflation, for an average cost of $367,647 per mile. Without inflation factored in, that cost is $311,764. (I rounded this out at $300,000.)
*** This figure is from Carl Knoch, Northeast trails director for the Rails to Trails Conservancy, using the cost of comparable rail conversions such as the 84-mile Downeast Sunrise Trail in Maine that runs from Ellsworth to Ayre Junction.