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Breaking down the rail trail’s outrageous economic prediction

I write to comment on statements made in recent days by those demanding the removal of the rails that connect the Tri-Lakes communities to the rest of the North American rail system.

On April 1 in the Albany Times Union, comments attributed to Mr. Lee Keet urged New York state to begin the removal of the rails during the 2016 summer tourism season. See m.timesunion.com/business/article/Adirondack-tourist-railroad-eyes-last-ditch-legal-7223505.php.

In more recent comments in this paper on April 15, the same person claims our region is losing a substantial amount of money, weekly, because a rail trail has not been built. That number, more than $500,000 per week, is so outrageous that it caused me to do an analysis. The Rail Trail Conservancy and the study conducted at the behest of and paid for by our local rail-removal enthusiasts appears to be the source cited.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy is an extremely pro-trail organization. Yet even for that organization, tearing up an operating rail system to build a trail would be a first. They claim new revenue from the rail trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake would be $1,794,249 from locals and $19,786,945 from visitors, or a total of $21,581,194. Assuming 40 weeks of suitable weather for trail use yields $539,530 per week of revenue.

Let’s break those numbers down some more:

[TABULATED_DATA]

The ratio of visitor dollars to local dollars is roughly 11 to 1.

Note: This does NOT include any estimate of visitor or local numbers, just their revenue contribution. Since there will be no fee charged for using the trail, it can only be assumed these figures refer to spending on other items related to trail use: i.e., food, lodging, travel expenses, other purchases, etc. This also assumes this is all new revenue directly tied to the rail trail – this is money coming into the local economy apart from all the other sources of revenue. It does NOT include the loss of revenue from rail-related activities.

To meet the revenue targets, each day this works out to:

* Local: $6,408.03 =

10 local people spending $640.80

20 spending $320.40

50 spending $128.10

250 spending $25.63

500 spending $12.82

* Visitors: $70,667.66 =

100 visitors spending $706.68

250 spending $282.67

500 spending $141.34

1,000 spending $70.68

1,500 spending $47.11

Note: Those calculations don’t account for differences between users; some of them will be children, after all. That means some individuals will have to spend more to meet the overall average for the group size. Planning for trail use on the basis of a 40-week trail season hides another problem: Trail use is NOT going to be uniform. Numbers will fluctuate with the seasons, weather, holidays and weekends versus weekdays and peak tourism season. Special events, including those that pre-empt use of the trail, also need to be considered. There’s also the plain fact that some sections of the trail are going to be far more popular than others. Part of it is how close sections are to the towns along the trail; part of it is that some destinations on the trail are going to draw more users. Revenue generation from 34 miles of trail is not going to be uniform over time OR space.

The bottom line

If the rail trail is to generate the $500,000 every week that is being claimed, it can go only two ways: It either does, or it doesn’t.

The average daily user numbers and the money generated are only that – average. In practice, there will be days when the trail will be seeing little use – and other days when it will be having serious traffic jams. The only way to meet the revenue numbers is to have peak crowds to average out the slow days – along with all the problems that will create, like where will people park, stay overnight, etc.

The money isn’t going to be spread evenly along the trail, either. Towns with long stretches that run through undeveloped areas aren’t going to be seeing a lot of revenue. Free trail, remember? And this is the best-case scenario: sufficient users (local and visiting) to generate that overall revenue.

Now, for people who just want a rail trail, they want the trains gone. But for people who are interested in the long-term future of the area – job creation, sustainable economic development, attracting money into the region – this is not a good deal. They’ll still be stuck paying for the rail trail, but the money won’t be there.

The railroad contributes millions of dollars to the region and attracts thousands of riders a year – nearly all of them visitors. It creates jobs directly and boosts the surrounding businesses. The railroad is on track to have a record year. Bringing the whole corridor into full passenger service will only make things better. (And don’t forget the rail bikes!)

Fluctuating user numbers with the railroad are not a problem; trains stop at places already set up to deal with crowds. History shows the rail line can handle far larger numbers. Coping with rider demand is just a matter of adding or subtracting cars and scheduling trains. Further, because the railroad charges for riding the trains, a ticket bought anywhere on the line – even down in Utica – is part of the revenue that supports the entire line!

Residents and visitors to the Tri-Lakes will benefit to a much greater extent when New York state implements the policy adopted in 1996: Upgrade the railroad all the way to Lake Placid, and invest in new trails to connect our communities. Passenger rail services have been missing for far too long. All of us who live in the Adirondack North Country, especially in the Tri-Lakes, deserve a modern rail transportation system to support economic development and complement the vast array of recreation opportunities that already exist.

Bob Hest lives in Mountain View.