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Time for state to update railroad plan

January 30, 2012
By Tony Goodwin , Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates

Pete Snyder's Jan. 12 commentary in defense of the current rail operations deserves a response. First of all, I can assure Mr. Snyder that both I and the Steering Committee of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates fully appreciate that he and his colleagues have worked very hard for a cause in which they truly believe. For that reason, ARTA's presentations in both Lake Placid and Tupper Lake began by giving the railroaders an "A" for effort.

Unfortunately, we see no evidence that any of the promised economic benefits or ridership projections have been realized. Therefore, those of us on the ARTA Steering Committee and now well over 2,300 others have concluded that continued rail use of the corridor north of Thendara is not in the best interests of the state or the region.

In 1992, at the beginning of the current debate over use of the corridor, the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, the current operator of the railroad, promised that it would restore the tracks from Utica to Lake Placid to 60 mph passenger speeds at no cost to the state. Since then, repeated allocations of taxpayer dollars have only produced a few miles of much slower track. Given the original promise of no cost to the state, I can only conclude that this has been one of the most successful bait-and-switch operations of all time.

For example, the $11 million awarded in 2000 to rehabilitate the Lake Placid-to-Saranac Lake section was expected to generate 50,000 riders per year. To date, all anecdotal grade crossing reports indicate nearly empty trains, calling into question the report of nearly 22,000 riders this year, or less than half of the predicted number.

Going back further, the first draft of the unit management plan (UMP) for the corridor in 1993 said that any funding for rail restoration would come from private sources. A study by Northwest Engineering sponsored by the Adirondack North Country Association put this cost at $17 million. The second draft of the UMP opened the door to state funding while also accepting a lower cost estimate for full 60 mph operation at $11 million. Since then, well over $11 million of state tax dollars have been spent without creating a single mile of 60 mph track and only a few miles of 30 mph track.

Mr. Snyder's commentary then questions whether ARTA actually intends to build a trail once the tracks are gone and whether ARTA appreciates what is involved in actually removing the rails. Salvage contractors have removed the rails on many rail lines, so this removal effort is not breaking any new ground. As soon as the rails are removed, snowmobilers will derive an immediate benefit in an extended season. Additionally, the New York State Snowmobile Association, using the funds obtained from snowmobile registrations, will groom and otherwise maintain the corridor. ARTA hopes, but does not expect, that existing grants and proceeds from rail removal will help fund the immediate surfacing of the corridor for bicycles. If these funds are not available, summer use will evolve more slowly, but the appeal of a wilderness bikeway will draw many mountain bikers almost from the start.

As for possible permitting obstacles, the current UMP merely needs to be revised in a direction envisioned in its original form. Rail use was to be tried, but if it didn't produce the promised benefits, then recreational use was the preferred option. UMPs are supposed to be updated every five years. The corridor UMP hasn't been updated for 15 years, so an update could take place in short order. It will not require, as Mr. Snyder alleges in his commentary, a "complete change in the unit management plan." There may be a requirement to deal with the historic designation, but the fact that the trail will allow more visitors to experience the corridor more often - and thereby learn about its history - should suffice to win that argument. Other agency reviews threatened by Mr. Snyder only apply if there is a change in corridor profile.

Annual maintenance is obviously an issue, but the line from Lake Clear to Malone (abandoned 50 years ago) and the line through the Bloomingdale Bog (abandoned 70 years ago) remain as useable trails with only minimal volunteer maintenance. Based on this experience, ongoing maintenance of the completed trail will be far less than what the state currently spends on maintaining the corridor for rail use.

The example of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail in Vermont, which Mr. Snyder cites as a failed rail-trail conversion, is a poor comparison to the situation on the corridor. The predecessor Vermont railroad hung on until 1997, when washouts made it uneconomical to continue rail operations. Since then, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers has become the lead agency in the full conversion of this 90-mile route across Vermont. Contrary to Mr. Snyder's assertion that "nothing has happened," VAST has rebuilt three major bridges, filled washouts and opened many miles to snowmobiling. VAST is currently stalled by an Act 250 environmental review process, but by contrast, the Adirondack Rail Corridor is already the subject of a UMP and completed environmental impact statement. These existing documents mostly resolve the sorts of issues that triggered the Act 250 review in Vermont.

Mr. Snyder finishes his commentary by complaining that freight service should be part of the traffic on the corridor. Aside from the fact that year-round freight service would end snowmobiling on the corridor, the most optimistic estimate of freight traffic by Freight Services Incorporated projected 1,700 cars per year. This works out to less than five cars per day - hardly a number for a profitable, fuel-efficient operation.

As has been said in other letters and commentaries, rail service ended 40 years ago for good reason. Restoring that service today is nothing more than a romantic notion. It's time to move forward to a 21st century use of this valuable public resource.

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Tony Goodwin lives in Keene and is a member of the Steering Committee of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.

 
 

 

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