(Editor's note: Mr. DeMaro sent this letter to the state Department of Transportation in regard to the upcoming meetings on review of the unit management plan for the 119-mile, state-owned railroad corridor between Remsen and Lake Placid.)
I am an Adirondack Scenic Railroad advocate.
For a couple of years I have heard about the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates organization wanting to replace the rail lines between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake with a rail trail. I decided to learn more about this idea, and I looked up their website. They have on the site three trails that they claim are very successful: the 21-mile Heritage Rail Trail between York, Pa., and the Maryland Line; the 141-mile Great Allegheny Passage between Cumberland, Md., and Homestead, Pa.; and the 60-mile Pine Creek Rail Trail between Jersey Shore, Pa., and Wellsboro, Pa. I decided to research these areas and the businesses near there since ARTA claims the regions are very successful because of the rail trail. I also wanted to see if we are comparing apples with apples when it comes to our region and theirs. I called the businesses in the various counties in Pennsylvania that have the rail trails and asked if they got any business from the trails and where did the people come from.
I found that business did come from the trail at either end, but the communities in the middle did not see very much activity and some people did not know there was a rail trail. As for apples to apples, the following is a breakdown of each of the rail trail regions.
First of all, ARTA seems to not mention in their website that all three of these areas offer a scenic railroad on the rail trail or very near. That's right, not all of the rails have been abandoned. The rails that were taken up were extra or parallel to rails that are still being used today.
When I started to get some information about the rail trails, I was told to contact the county park district or visitors centers in the various counties. I found out the visitor centers are managed by the county and the people working are county employees. The trails are owned, maintained and managed and patrolled by the state of Pennsylvania Conservation Department, and all of the following information came from them.
The Heritage Rail Trail and the Great Allegheny Passage both have a large number of visitors, mostly from within their own counties since both have more than 450,000 people or cities very close that have great numbers over 450,000. Our local population does not even come close, using all five surrounding counties. The trails have taken more than 20 years to develop and multi-millions of dollars from state and local governments.
The Pine Creek Rail Trail in Tioga County, on the other hand, does get its business from outside their county. The region has been in the tourist business for well over 100 years. It's situated in a very good location, central to large populations with millions of people. They get their visitors from the Washington, D.C., New York City, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo areas. They have the Grand Canyon of the East for a major draw. It has taken 13 years to construct the trail. As for apples to apples, they have beside the scenic railroad at Wellsboro horseback trails, boats and rafting, bike trails, walking trails, cross-country skiing and a shuttle that will pick up and deliver you to many entrances of the trail. Those services cost a lot of money, and many will never be offered in our region where the proposed rail trail would be. They also offer four seasons of weather. We know that does not exist in our region. Very few people would use the trail with temperatures below zero.
The state of New York owns the corridor between Utica and Lake Placid and is obligated to make good use of the corridor at the taxpayers' least expense. Tearing up the rails and letting a single group govern the corridor is a mistake. We all know that the trail will be given to the state to maintain in the future as soon as the plan fades, very similar to the Olympic Regional Development Authority facilities that the state of New York loses money on each year. Recently, the state has cut back and closed many of its facilities because of a lack of money. The Visitor Interpretive Centers are a good example.
Do you think the state will take on another large, expensive, money-wasting project?
The ARTA website and various recent letters claim that the trail will attract at least 227,000 visitors. That's an average of 622 per day all year long. You and I know that will never be. So what purpose is there to suggest such a figure?
My wife and I are hosts on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, and our job is to help people on and off the train, make them comfortable on their trip and collect tickets. Last year our job consisted of keeping a running log on the number of seniors, adults and children who took the trip that day, and I am very happy to say that the round trip from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake came up with a final figure (that I know of) of 21,000. If I use the very least amount of money spent by these people for lodging, food, gas and gifts, that amounts to about $2 million spent in the area. Also, the train has many employees and volunteers from all over New York state and Vermont who also spend money on lodging, food, gas and gifts while they are working on the train.
When comparing apples to apples, I am interested in seeing the rail trails offer something for everyone. Many of our visitors on the train are either mentally or physically handicapped, by health or age. Recently, we had a lady from Massena who needs to have oxygen 24/7 to breathe and was very physically handicapped. We helped her on the train and off, and she said it was one of the most pleasurable events since she had become handicapped.
Recently, Pete Nelson wrote a letter to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise praising the Elroy-Sparta trail in Wisconsin, so I called them and asked them what they have to offer to the handicapped. The lady, who was very nice, said the trail does not offer anything. She directed me to a scenic railroad in North Freedom, Wis., about one hour from them.
Lastly, if the state of New York gives in to ARTA and lets them take up the rails and use the money for their own personal ideas, I think the state should have ARTA put into escrow the money to rebuild the railroad from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake. Give them two years to build the rail trail and bring in the 227,000, or the state hires someone to rebuild the tracks with ARTA money. Having them earn the money to build the rail trail next to the existing tracks is the best idea, not figure a way to get a free ride with the lady from Massena's tax money.
Recently, as the passengers on the train were getting off, a young lady, about 8 or 9, said, "Thank you for letting me ride on your train." I told her, "Thank you for letting me work on your train."
Robert J. DeMaro lives in Lyon Mountain.