"Economic council nurtures regional identity," read the headline over Jessica's Collier's story (Aug. 22) about the triumphs of an organization created to funnel state money to the North Country. While this organization has had remarkable success in procuring government grants, it has so far failed to support the one project that could do more to "nurture regional identity" and bolster our economy than almost anything else.
The organization that fails to see the obvious is the North Country Regional Economic Development Council. What blinds them is the obsession of Garry Douglas, the council's co-chairman. His obsession involves trains. Not the high-speed trains this country desperately needs between our cities, but the kind of obsolete train service he wants to restore between Lake Placid and Utica. This seems to be his pet passion, though it makes no sense economically or any other way.
The real problem here is that you can't have both a train and a recreational trail on a single-track rail bed. Mr. Douglas' nostalgic pipe dream about restoring train service is doubly misguided: It would waste taxpayer money, and it would prevent a truly beneficial use of the rail corridor as a recreation trail.
(Enterprise file photo)
Converting the 90-mile corridor between Lake Placid and Old Forge into the Adirondack Rail Trail would be one of the best things to happen to the North Country in every way: economically, recreationally, health-wise. It would be a boon for businesses and communities, for commuters who could bike to work, for cyclists of every age and physical ability attracted here from far and wide. It would be a boon for families with children seeking a safe place to enjoy nature, to walk, jog or bike together. It would be a boon for athletes in training, for bird watchers, for people in wheelchairs, for parents pushing baby strollers. Removing the tracks on the unused rail bed will double the season for snowmobilers, making Tupper Lake a thriving snowmobile hub in the winter.
A recent study supported by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which operates the 9-mile tourist train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, said that restoring the railroad line over the entire 141 miles to Utica would cost $16,533,915 (the New York State Department of Transportation puts the cost at a more realistic $43 million) and would attract 7,000 new overnight visitors to the Adirondacks each year. According to the ASR study, these visitors would spend $648,836 while they're here.
Another recent study by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was based on the success of comparable rail trails elsewhere in the Northeast. It found that converting the corridor connecting Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake into a recreation trail would draw a quarter-million annual visitors who would spend $19.8 million while here. That's 30 times more economic impact than a resurrected Lake Placid-Utica railroad would produce!
Moreover - and this is a big "moreover" - there would be NO COST to taxpayers for building a rail trail linking Placid to Tupper. How can that be? Simple - it's because the salvage value of the rails and ties would more than cover the cost of surfacing the Tri-Lakes section to accommodate road bikes as well as hybrid and mountain bikes.
(In the unlikely event there would ever be a public need to restore the Lake Placid-Utica line, the well-maintained recreational trail will be there, perfectly suited to receive the new tracks and ties needed for modern train service.)
In the same Enterprise story that trumpets the economic council's success, co-Chairman Tony Collins noted the need to attract new and enterprising residents to the North Country who, with adequate broadband access, could live in the Adirondacks and telecommute to work. This, along with enhanced tourism, is clearly the best economic future for the region. And what could be a greater draw for these young families and entrepreneurs than the proximity of a world-class recreation trail? These folks are seeking a high quality of life, and the Adirondack Rail Trail will add greatly to that quality.
Garry Douglas has done good work for the North Country; however, his obsession with restoring train service where it makes absolutely no sense - and his failure to see the enormous potential of the Adirondack Rail Trail - is preventing him from getting the A+ for economic development he might otherwise deserve.
Dick Beamish lives in Saranac Lake and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.