This may seem like more of the "he said, she said" dispute that's been raging for the past two years over the best use of the rail corridor connecting the Tri-Lakes area. But the arguments deserve careful scrutiny, for much is at stake.
"Why can't we compromise and have both a rail and a trail?" say the rail promoters, over and over. "Why can't we just work together?"
Here's why - using as an example the latest recitation by Dean Lefebvre (Nov. 11 Guest Commentary) of the faith-based arguments for restoring railroad service through the Adirondacks. His statements and my responses follow.
"Many Tupper Lakers, via Next Stop Tupper Lake, have been working for years to see the rail line between Tupper and Saranac Lake upgraded to handle passenger trains."
True, there's been an impassioned effort by dedicated railroad volunteers and a handful of outspoken "community leaders" seeking to extend train service the 25 miles from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake. In fact, they hope to restore passenger and freight service on the entire 120-mile Remsen-Placid line.
One problem here is the lack of demand for such service. Another problem is that it would cost taxpayers $44 million (New York State Department of Transportation's estimate) to upgrade the ties and tracks for rail service. Yet another problem: While Dean Lefebvre and other train boosters profess to speak for Tupper Lake, more than 500 residents of that community have signed on with Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates to convert the rail bed between Tupper and Saranac Lake into a recreational trail. Why? Because a world-class "rail trail" connecting the Tri-Lakes would bring significant economic, recreational, cultural, health and safety benefits to the area.
"It has been my opinion for years that we can have both rails and trails."
This opinion is faith-based, not fact-based. It may be possible to build a parallel trail alongside the 9 miles of rail bed between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake if enough public funding is available. But we cannot have both train service and a recreation trail on the 25 miles between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, and from there on to the Old Forge area. It is an either/or proposition.
The rail bed crosses lakes, streams and innumerable wetlands. The Adirondack Park Agency could not approve widening the rail bed by 20 feet and encroaching on ecologically sensitive areas, which a separate trail would require. This is an environmental NO-NO, just as it is a financial impossibility. The cost to taxpayers of creating a side-by-side trail beyond Saranac Lake would run at least a half-million dollars per mile. By contrast, converting the existing rail bed to a recreational trail would cost taxpayers nothing. Proceeds from salvaging the rails and ties would cover the cost of surfacing the bed for bicycling, running, walking, wheelchair use, etc.
"It is the only means of a possible high-speed transportation venue in and out of the heart of the Adirondack Park."
We have an outstanding highway system connecting the Adirondack Park with the outside world. The last thing we need (or can afford) is high-speed train service through the heart of the Adirondacks. What this country urgently needs is high-speed rail connecting our cities. Squandering $44 million to restore rail service between the Old Forge area and Lake Placid would qualify as the biggest boondoggle ever inflicted on the Adirondack Park.
"I have never seen Dick Beamish support anything in these Adirondacks that would enhance them economically."
He's seeing it now. Just compare the potential uses of the corridor. The study commissioned by the rail boosters found that extending rail service from Lake Placid to Utica would attract 7,000 additional overnight visitors who would spend $648,855 in the area. A study by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy estimated that the 34-mile recreation trail connecting Placid, Saranac and Tupper would attract approximately 250,000 annual visitors who would leave behind $20 million.
"No one can convince me that by having trails only, we'll see an additional 250,000 more people here per year."
The RTC study based its estimates on rail-to-trail conversions elsewhere in the East. Many of these rail trails are hugely popular, thanks in part to the surge in bicycle tourism and the growing interest in healthy exercise. But even if the RTC study was off by a factor of 10 - if the number of visitors attracted to this tourist destination were 25,000 a year instead of 250,000, and the amount they spent were $2 million instead of $20 million - that would still be three times more people and tourist dollars than we could expect from restored train service.
"What would happen if the DOT gives up its ownership of the so-called Lake Placid-to-Remsen rail corridor?"
A scare tactic employed by the railroad promoters is their insistence that once the tracks are removed, the corridor will become part of the Forest Preserve and nobody but hikers will be able to use it. Again, this argument is faith-based rather than fact-based. DOT does not own the corridor - we all do. The corridor is managed by DOT for the greatest good of the greatest number. It will not revert to Forest Preserve when the rails are removed because no state agency or significant pressure group wants this to happen. The pro-corridor constituencies include snowmobilers, cyclists, runners, nature lovers, health advocates, economic development promoters, and yes-even the wilderness-loving Adirondack Council
"Members of ARTA should become less self-centered and avaricious."
If it's self-centered and greedy to want this public resource to be used for the greatest public good, so be it. Just consider how this recreation trail would enhance the quality of life for Tri-Lakes residents and communities - in contrast to the marginal benefits of restored train service. Families with children would have a safe, easy, accessible place for biking, walking, observing nature and enjoying our wonderful outdoors. People in wheelchairs, senior citizens, commuters, athletes in training, joggers, strollers, bird-watchers and, in season, snowmobilers - all would richly benefit.
Dick Beamish lives in Saranac Lake and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.