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The rails vs. trails debate: Where do we go from here?

February 13, 2012
By Joe Mercurio , Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates

Thanks to Jim McCulley's recent examination of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad's tax returns (Feb. 1 Enterprise) and Tony Goodwin's review of the broken agreements that ASR has made with the state (Jan. 30 Enterprise), we now know a great deal more about the tourist train operation. And what we have learned is not reassuring.

The ASR is losing money, not making it. For 12 years now, it has been subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of over $35 million with continuing annual subsidies in violation of the agreement that it would pay its own way. Indeed, were it not for public subsidies, the ASR would have closed down long ago. To judge by its tax returns, the operation is insolvent. Perhaps most significant, the ASR has had a negligible impact on the local economy while essentially privatizing a 90-mile, publicly owned corridor, rendering it idle and unproductive for decades.

We can understand the passion and nostalgia of the railroad advocates - who doesn't love trains? What we can't understand is why organizations that are presumably in the business of promoting economic development seem committed to perpetuating this failed enterprise. And not only that. These same organizations, most notably the North Country Chamber of Commerce, Adirondack North Country Association and North Country Regional Economic Council, seem dedicated to restoring freight and passenger service on the entire Adirondack corridor. Conversely, they oppose the far more productive use of the corridor as a year-round, multi-use recreational trail - unless such a trail could be run alongside the rail bed, a physical and financial impossibility for the 81 miles connecting Saranac Lake and Old Forge.

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We have been waiting 40 years for the railroad line to be restored and become profitable. How much longer must we wait? How many more taxpayer dollars must we spend in anticipation of the economic benefits of the tourist train? Alan Heywood, vice president of Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, tells us that it's not fair to fault the railroad for its lack of success (Albany Times Union, Jan. 29). That's because, according to Mr. Heywood, the track itself is only "a third done." He goes on to suggest that it may take another decade, not to mention undisclosed millions more of taxpayer dollars, to get things up to speed. We have heard such promises for four decades now: Just give us more time, more money, and we'll get the job done.

And that's where things stand at the moment. On the one hand, we have an unsuccessful experiment in the form of a tourist train that runs between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid several months a year. On the other, we have a Department of Transportation that has poured - and continues to pour - annual contributions of taxpayer money into an insolvent business operation. And finally we have, as cheerleaders for maintaining and extending the tourist train, the "economic development" organizations who stand by their failed enterprise come hell or high water. Sadly and inexplicably, they are working against, not for, economic development of the North Country. By beating this dead horse of a tourist train, they are blocking one of the best opportunities we have ever had to do something of lasting economic value for the region. A world-class recreation trail running through the Adirondacks from Lake Placid to Old Forge would attract tourists to our region by the hundreds of thousands, tourists who would spend millions of dollars at local restaurants, lodgings, bike shops, outfitters, museums, etc. A recreational trail of this stature has been described by more than one observer as "an economic game changer." In his recent letter to the editor (Dec. 27, 2011, Enterprise), Pete Nelson sums it up nicely: "It's not about the railroad, folks. It's about the money."

There are those who suggest that the rails vs. trails debate is little more than an academic exercise. They believe the powers-that-be are invariably resistant to change and that when all is said and done, nothing of consequence will come of all this fuss. They are mistaken. If enough of us speak out, the voice of reason will ultimately prevail and the trail, which would be unique in the United States, will become a reality. That's the way our system works.

It comes down to this: Where do we, as a commmunity, stand with respect to these deliberations? Ken Youngblood, in a letter to the editor (Jan. 25 Enterprise), put it this way: "What you do or don't do to influence the outcome of this debate will impact the viability of the economy that supports every family struggling to live in the Tri-Lakes region of the Adirondacks."

Please add your voice to that of the roughly 2,500 others who have already registered their support for the Great Adirondack Recreation Trail by going to and scrolling down to "Sign Up Now." It only takes a minute.


Joe Mercurio is a resident of Saranac Lake and a member of the steering committee of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.



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