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ARTA’s trail plan isn’t so simple

January 12, 2012
By Pete Snyder , Adirondack Scenic Railroad

After reading about the newest ARTA plans to conduct more studies and expand their desires to Old Forge, I can only conclude one thing: ARTA is an acronym for Another Ridiculous Trail Argument. What else can one deduct when the realities and facts are considered?

It's hard to know where to start in analyzing the claims made by the handful of individuals who comprise the "steering committee" of this self-appointed group. Singlehandedly, they summarily dismiss years of hard work by so many individuals, organizations and government entities under the guise that they simply know better. No matter that the issue was settled years ago, with a plan for the corridor wisely preserving rail service - now they have no patience for the railroad revitalization to be completed so its anticipated benefits can be fully realized.

Pardon me for thinking how disingenuous ARTA has become. First, its members recruit public support by announcing what they describe as a modest, "volunteers can do it" 34-mile plan for a trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake. Now, apparently, they want much, much more, almost three times the distance - to tear up the rails nearly 90 miles all the way to Thendara. Perhaps then, before they commission another study "against" the railroad - a (unbiased?) study whose outcome they already state will "prove" their claims - maybe they better start by recalculating their trail costs that no longer reflect the project they are advocating.

Personally, I fear their trail plan is a myth, intentional or not, and that once the rails are ripped up, that will be the end of any substantial trail activity. The tracks will be gone, and ARTA won't have any real incentive to complete the job. Certainly the trail plan does not come with any guarantee of a positive outcome.

Frankly speaking, it is abundantly clear the ARTA plan is not nearly as simple as they would like everyone to believe. Let's review the facts as stated in ARTA's own Camoin study.

The permitting:

-It would take, at a minimum, at least six or more years before any conversion work could begin.

-It may require an act of the state Legislature.

-The trail would need significant permits: from the state Adirondack Park Agency; the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; and the Department of Environmental Conservation; as well as the Army Corps of Engineers. It will require a complete change in the unit management plan.

-It will require a significant Federal Railroad Administration railroad-abandonment proceeding. (In sharp contrast, The existing railroad does not require any of the above listed permits.)

And the costs:

-To maintain the 34-mile trail, it will cost the taxpayer approximately $150,000 with volunteers - just about what it costs now for the entire 118-mile corridor with the railroad. So, using their own per-mile figures, to maintain a 90-mile trail will cost the taxpayers more than $397,000 per year. Obviously the trail is not going to save the taxpayer money; rather, it will cost significantly more.

-To build the 34-mile trail, it will cost $17 million to $22 million. Now ARTA wants 90 miles. Again, using ARTA's own per-mile figures, the 90-mile trail will cost at least $45 million to $58 million.

Clearly, ARTA's plans are not as simple as it would like us to believe.

Further, ARTA members have not articulated how they would manage such a large undertaking and how they would pay for the construction (beyond hoping they can salvage the scrap, to which they have no claim or commitment of). Talk is cheap. More, they have no plan for annual maintenance costs, now for 90 miles - except, I suspect, to seek funding from the state Department of Transportation, which, using their figures now, will be more than double than what has been spent historically on average.

If you remain skeptical, I strongly recommend you look at Vermont and its experience to construct the 96-mile Lamoille Valley Recreational Trail. Back in 2001, the state chose trail over rail, as promoted by VAST, the statewide snowmobile club. The rails were ripped up (saved and reused on other state rail property, not sold for scrap and not used to offset trail costs), and for the last 11 years, nothing has happened. The trail is not built, it is in litigation, and all that remains is rough ballast. Bridges are blocked, and washouts are plentiful. The whole project has become a giant, 96-mile boondoggle, with rail gone forever and little to show for it. It is precisely what I fear could happen here.

ARTA, with rose-colored glasses, fails to understand the magnitude of its desires. It is time it stops singularly criticizing the railroad and promoting a plan nobody can afford to build. It is not the railroad's fault the economy became challenging for all of us and slowed down the rail repair momentum. We need to stay the course and complete the rail and - where appropriate - the trail project.

The fact is, rail service is too unique and valuable to ever give up in the Adirondacks. Rail preserved is an investment for future generations. The revival of the Saratoga and North Creek Railroad is clear proof of this. Who would have thought a battle for freight service there would be on their horizon? I am glad for their overwhelming success and the strong support for their plans, and there is every reason it can happen here, too.

To those who casually dismiss the railroad's freight potential here, I suggest you think again. There is great potential. But in a nod years ago to corridor multi-use, the compromising decision was made to run the railroad seasonally. That more or less prevents the railroad right now from courting freight customers. Maybe, as ARTA claims the railroad has no potential, that decision should be revisited.

By the way, this winter's mild, snowless start should remind everyone the snowmobile season is much shorter than many would like to admit. The ARTA "improved" snowmobile revenue claims are exaggerated as well. The rails removed will not change the shorter winter.


Pete Snyder is operations manager for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad's Lake Placid-Tupper Lake Division. He lives in Saranac Lake.



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