Your recent article about the proposed rail trail connecting Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake left me with some questions. The article covered the announcement by the state that it intends to review the management plan for the rail corridor to determine its best use.
In response to the announcement, Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau was quoted as saying, "The (railroad tracks) between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake should be left in place because the trail is already approved with the rail in that section only."
Question: Doesn't Mayor Rabideau know that the idea of having both a tourist train and a recreation trail on the same, single-track rail bed has been deemed too expensive and also environmentally questionable?
The mayor, who wants to keep the tourist train in operation despite its less-than-impressive record for more than a decade, spoke of the economic "bump" it gives the village of Saranac Lake.
Question: Where is there evidence of such a bump, compared to the very real economic benefits a recreation trail would provide?
The tourist train, aka Adirondack Scenic Railroad, cut back service this year, starting in July rather than May. Which means that ASR now operates between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake for a few hours each day just 70 days a year. The trend seems clear. ASR has eliminated its Wine Train, and passengers seem in short supply for the remaining excursions. On a recent Sunday, I counted three paying customers and eight volunteers on the morning train.
These are dedicated volunteers, and they certainly deserve credit for trying. Yet the fact remains that their passion for running an unproductive tourist train has prevented a much more beneficial use of the corridor.
By contrast, a recreation trail for biking, running, walking and improved snowmobiling would bring year-round economic benefits to the region for 16 hours a day at least 300 days a year.
Another question: Where are the true facts? The ASR has so far refused to make public its business plan, and there is a serious lack of credible data concerning its ridership. Plus, there is no breakdown showing where the ridership occurs. My own audit, based on ASR's public statements and tax returns, shows that 83 percent of the ridership occurs between Utica and Old Forge - the lion's share of this between Utica and Remsen, not even on this corridor.
The Enterprise article also contained a puzzling quote from Joan McDonald, the commissioner of the Department of Transportation, which manages the corridor. Commissioner McDonald referred to the Adirondack Scenic Railroad as her department's "rail partner." But what kind of partnership could this be? The tourist train has received, from its own auditors, a Notice of Ability to Continue, which means that banks can't lend ASR money on its own standing. The tourist train currently operates on a month-to-month lease with the state.
How could a long-term lease, which is what the train operators are calling for, be allowed by the state comptroller in light of the company's precarious financial situation?
Coupled with the state's proposal to convert the 34 miles between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake into a recreation trail, the state also announced that it will consider extending the tourist train 56 miles north from Old Forge to Tupper Lake. It's notable that $1.4 million of taxpayer money was recently spent to extend the operation 6 miles north from Old Forge to Big Moose. Yet as of July 20, no trains have used these new tracks this year. Also worth noting is that the round-trip excursion from Utica to Big Moose, scheduled for one day a week, was canceled after just one season due to lack of demand. This is not a surprising outcome, considering that the round-trip takes more than nine hours.
Will there be a demand for long-distance trips from Utica or Old Forge to Tupper Lake and back? While rail supporters say yes, history says no. How many people, especially kids, would want to sit for that many hours looking out a train window when they could be enjoying themselves outdoors?
Mayor Rabideau's perceived "bump" in the local economy, produced by the tourist train at the north end of the line, bears serious scrutiny. So does the state's idea of extending the tourist train from the south through the Adirondacks, all the way to Tupper Lake.
The state's conservation and transportation departments will need to get beyond the misinformation and wishful thinking as they determine the most productive use of this incredible public asset. We're happy that this process is finally about to begin!
Jim McCulley lives in Lake Placid and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.