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A trail while we wait for new rails

August 3, 2012
By Lee Keet , Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates

We have had three studies in a little over a year trying to help us decide what to do with the rail corridor and the tourist train. These studies were done by Camoin Associates, Stone Consulting and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. We also have the state Department of Transportation's own studies and budgets on rail restoration and maintenance. Some of the results seem wildly contradictory, so it is not unreasonable to either dismiss them all or to assume that someone is stacking the deck. But the similarities are more important than the differences.

-The 10-year costs of rebuilding the rail line vary from $323,000 (Stone) to $478,000 (DOT) per mile. The Camoin study a year ago was right in the middle. That's a total restoration cost of $29 million to $43 million.

-But restoring rail service will only bring between 7,000 and 8,400 new visitors to the region, according to Stone and Camoin. That means subsidizing train passengers to the tune of at least $345 per trip for 10 years.

-The Camoin and RTC studies agree that more than 73,000 people, probably many more, will use a recreation trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake.

-Salvaging the obsolete rails from Saranac Lake to Old Forge will bring us between $5.2 million and $6.4 million to use on the trail, both Camoin and RTC agree. And the state's unit management plan recommends using the salvage of the rails to build the trail. So it looks like we could have lots of visitors and lots of revenue for little or no expense.

Despite these overwhelming figures, there are still people calling for a side-by-side train and trail. Again, the studies matter. The state of New York said "the potential for the development of a continuous parallel trail within the Corridor is severely limited." Camoin's study highlighted "the nature of the corridor and the significant environmental impacts that would result from such a (dual path) project." The RTC study says, "Rock cuts, wetlands, bridges, causeways, and culverts between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake make a continuation of the proposed parallel path between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake impractical and unaffordable." Conclusion: We simply cannot have both.

But we CAN have our cake and eat it, too. To restore rail service, the rotted ties would have to be removed and new ties and rails installed on repaired ballast. Train tracks are not built today like they were in 1892, when the current tracks were laid; modern technology uses longer, "continuous" rails. Therefore, to restore rail service, the effort would be exactly the same to put tracks and ties down on a recreation trail sometime in the future (actually easier) than it would to rebuild today. With "rail banking," that is exactly the process. In a national emergency, for example, the trail could very quickly be turned back into a rail bed. In the interim, we could have $400,000 per week of new tourist revenue brought into the area by thousands of cyclists and other trail users, according to RTC.

And this does not include visitors and revenues from snowmobiling. With the tracks salvaged from Saranac Lake to Old Forge, even before the Old Forge-to-Tupper Lake stretch was surfaced for hybrids and road bikes, snowmobiles would have an unhindered link north from Old Forge, the snowmobiling capital of the Adirondacks. Mountain bikes could use the Tupper Lake-to-Old Forge trail immediately as well.

Today the tracks are a serious hindrance and risk for snowmobiling. Because 2 feet of snow are required to adequately cover the rails, the snowmobilers are lucky to use half of their five-month lease. Tupper Lake would be the primary beneficiary of greatly improved snowmobiling, but points north and east would benefit as well.

Most importantly, all of the studies agree on these key points:

-We get way more tourists, up to 30 times as many, if the unused 81 miles of rail bed from Old Forge to Tupper Lake become a recreation trail.

-We lose nothing and gain everything by building the trail now. Should the time come when we need to restore the rails, the recreation trail will be a far better bed to lay them on than the corridor as it exists today.

-No matter what, we would have to lift the tracks and ties and replace much of the ballast to construct either a recreation trail or a workable railroad.

-While we dither, we are losing an estimated $400,000 per week in tourist dollars from rail-trail users for every week that we delay, according to RTC.

In sum, we lose nothing by taking the brass ring and putting those 81 unused miles of magnificent corridor to work for us. I urge everyone to make their voice heard by signing the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates petition at


Lee Keet lives in Saranac Lake and is a member of ARTA's board of directors.



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