Recently, I had a number of conversations with Carl Knoch. Carl is manager of trail development at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Northeast Regional Office. Readers of this newspaper are probably familiar with Carl's name, as he has worked with Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates on several occasions. He is also the lead author of a 57-page report on costs/benefits of eliminating rail infrastructure from the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor and replacing it with a recreational trail. That report, which was commissioned and paid for by ARTA and is being used by ARTA as a marketing tool and political persuader, has some serious problems. I called RTC officials to complain.
I pointed out that the report includes trail examples that skew projected user numbers upward and construction costs downward. Also, the authors seem to have applied a formula to determine income from an Adirondack trail that is different from the way income was calculated for their example trails.
Despite these serious concerns, it is two short sentences on page 3 of the report that cut to the heart of the problem with ARTA's mission. Those sentences proclaim: "When the opportunity to build a new trail arises, something remarkable often happens in a community. Individuals, state and local government, the private sector and community-based groups unite in the common purpose of building a trail."
I have no reason to doubt this is true - everywhere but here, where the rails-to-trails question has become the most divisive issue to hit the area in years.
Why? Because ARTA has chosen to violate RTC principles. The leaders of ARTA have relentlessly attacked the Adirondack Scenic Railroad in an attempt to discredit its operators, demoralize its volunteer work force, dismiss its supporters as deluded, and vilify the railroad's very existence. All along, the drumbeat has been: Scenic railroad = bad; recreational trail = good. It's part of a strategy to rally the public and elected officials to pressure the state of New York to terminate ASR's operating permit and remove the rails or, at a minimum, to open the corridor management plan for revision. This has been going on for nearly two years.
ARTA can come up with any number of "reasons" for what they've been doing. The fact remains that ASR is a legitimate business in a contractual relationship with the state of New York and operating in compliance with the law. The truth of the matter is that ARTA, which has from the beginning used RTC to lend itself credibility, has been making its frontal assault on ASR in direct opposition to rails-to-trails guidelines.
At the RTC website, under "I want to: build a trail" - "Trail-Building Toolbox" - "Corridor Research: Active vs. Abandoned Corridors," you'll see, in part, the following:
"The first step in your search is to determine the corridor status - does the Surface Transportation Board (STB) recognize the corridor as 'active' or 'abandoned?'
"A line can be ACTIVE if:
"Trains are running and the railroad is profitable - Consider Rail-with-Trail
"Trains are using it, but the line is not profitable - Railbanking may be an option."
Furthermore, according to RTC's book, "Secrets of Successful Rail Trails," tracks are active whether they are in use "every day or once a year." By this definition, there can be no question that the Adirondack line is active. Also, the New York State Department of Transportation's "New York State Rail Plan" shows the Remsen-Lake Placid Corridor - in its entirety - as an active railroad. So we see that ARTA has not only uniquely violated RTC principles; it has ignored RTC's definition and New York state's designation of the Adirondack corridor as an active line and engaged in a propaganda campaign to portray the opposite.
Profitability is not part of the equation for the ASR because it is a not-for-profit operation. All earnings are pumped back into the railroad. It's not ALLOWED to make a profit. So the first rule here eliminates the option of tearing up the tracks - "consider rail-with-trail." This is what is being done between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid right now, and which ARTA opposed. Even if profitability were a consideration, notice that railbanking "may be" an option. The RTC guidelines are worded that way because railbanking is a cooperative enterprise. Railbanking is "retaining a rail corridor for future railroad uses after service has been discontinued (and) provides for interim public use of the corridor." The rails and ties can be removed, yet allow for their return in the future. This cannot be done without the agreement of the railroad, according to the RTC book, and neither the ASR nor DOT want to do this. Yet ARTA believes it can force the situation and is acting accordingly.
This is where some of my conversation with Carl Knoch comes in. On Nov. 14, I asked him, "How often does RTC advocate for conversion to trail of rail corridor that is active?" He said, "We don't." Then he added, "We do not advocate for abandonment of an active rail line." I had framed my question around the word "advocate" because it seemed to me the study that RTC produced for ARTA was an advocacy piece, not strictly informational.
But I wanted to get a better idea of just how extraordinary is ARTA's attack on ASR. So two days later, I called Carl again and asked him, "How often do you see an organization go after an active rail line? Does it happen frequently? Is it unusual?" He replied, "It's unusual." Trying to be more specific, I asked him, "How many cases have you seen like this?" He answered, "I'm not familiar with any that have been done that way, but I couldn't say it hasn't happened before." So then I asked, "How often does RTC give assistance to such a group?" And he replied, "I don't know that we ever have." It seemed pointless to try to pin him down any further, and I didn't bother stating what I believe was clear to both of us: that in working with ARTA, RTC had, in fact, given assistance to just such a group. I did say that what ARTA was doing was antithetical to RTC guidelines - an assertion he did not refute.
The insistence of ARTA leaders in violating RTC guidelines while using the Rails-to-Trails brand to try to legitimatize their activities appears to be a cynical attempt to deceive the public and should be an embarrassment to RTC officials. And ARTA leaders' insistence on trying to shove Adirondack Scenic Railroad out of the way, subverting the rails-to-trails process, has left us with two years of dissension, frustration, anger and confusion instead of the relative harmony and unification that characterize rail-to-trail projects elsewhere.
Phil Gallos lives in Saranac Lake.