Trains. Railroads. No other form of transportation has been so loved and so hated, so fondly remembered and so hotly discarded from memory. But rails-to-trails is not about memories or transportation: it's about the great modern god, ENTERTAINMENT. Whether taking the Adirondack Scenic Railroad or riding your bicycle from Saranac Lake to Tupper (good luck with the scenery along that route!), it's all about what we do in our free time. Bicycling takes more effort than riding in a snowmobile, and riding in a snowmobile takes more effort than sitting in a train - but they are all forms of entertainment.
The ASR has not been a rousing success, as measured by the number of riders. An 8-mile stretch of track that passes not terribly much that is scenic - who expects such a thing to work? It's like getting people to ride a ferry for fun. So should we abandon the railroad and make the world safe for bicyclists along the old railroad bed, or should we get the railroad out of ferry status and back into full operation as a trunk line linking the New York-Albany-Utica-Chicago corridor to the Tri-Lakes?
If you said bicycling, you're wrong. There already are bicycle paths in our area: Bloomingdale Bog, the old D&H tracks that pass through Onchiota and on out to Loon Lake, to name just one. This trail, though it is well marked, well maintained and publicized, is every bit as underused as a driveway to an abandoned farmhouse. Is it because the access points are remote? Lake Clear, Bloomingdale, Onchiota - these are not served by state and county highways? Of late, we've seen a barrage of pro-bike-path articles in local newspapers. Two thousand signatures on a petition for bike paths in the railbed were obtained during Ironman. Study after study, paid for by pro-bike groups, shows millions of new tourist dollars and tens of thousands of new tourists. This is an illusion, taking data from states and areas that have nothing in common with ours. Try doing a search on bike paths, and see if you can't find a report whose prose is falling over itself to declare bicycling paths the surest road to economic prosperity - even tax relief! Cui bono?
The simple fact is this: Many of the bicyclists you see in the Tri-Lakes are training for the 90-Miler, Tinman or Ironman. They're not tourists, and they don't want to train on a flat railroad bed. They're certainly not using the old D&H railbed. By going rails-to-trails, we're just creating another empty corridor.
If, however, we used state and federal dollars to rehabilitate the tracks all the way from Saranac Lake to Utica, what then might we expect? Well, just do a search for the term "passenger railroad spur lines," and see what you get. Creating a spur line is one of the most popular ways under consideration to bring business and tourist dollars to a given location. You'll see communities in Iowa, South Carolina, Mississippi, all jockeying to get railroad lines rehabilitated before they become too dilapidated to be of any value. Is any one of these states as varied, as beautiful or as visited as New York? There are things in heaven and earth that you haven't thought of or dreamed about, Horatio, but imagine, if you will, making a rail line just a day trip for the busiest transportation corridor of the state? Imagine how convenient it would be for Tri-Lakes residents to travel to Chicago, Albany or in between? No longer would we have to drive down Route 73, take the right onto the ramp in North Hudson, head south for an hour-and-a-half. We'd have that right here. And tourists all over the New York City-Albany-Chicago corridor would have a convenient way of getting here without the cramped quarters of a bus and without the trouble of an airport.
This is not a debate about which form of entertainment is qualitatively better; it is about what makes the most economic sense. Rails-to-trails does not fit the bill; a rehabilitated and extended railroad line does.
Emmett Hoops lives in Saranac Lake.