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End the debate; build the trail

“The great experiment called the Adirondack Scenic Railroad (ASR) has reached the end of the line. While I once supported this endeavor, I now feel it is time to admit that it’s an abject failure. Continuing this taxpayer-supported hobby is not in the best interest of the people of the Adirondacks or the environment.”

That’s from an essay in the bi-monthly Adirondack Explorer magazine of November-December 2006. The writer, Jim McCulley of Lake Placid, continued as follows:

“The ASR runs tourist trains in Old Forge and Lake Placid and dreams of reopening the line between the two villages. To do so, it is asking the state for $27 million to restore a 74-mile stretch of tracks that goes through the heart of the Adirondack wilderness. It would be better to pull up the tracks and open the corridor for other uses, such as hiking and mountain biking, and improve it for snowmobiling.”

That was was perhaps the first voice raised publicly in the Great Debate over the future of our underutilized rail corridor. Fast-forward four years to an editorial in the Adirondack Explorer (March-April 2010) headlined, “World-class bikeway envisioned.” This clarion call attracted the greatest reader response in the history of the publication, and it revealed a pent-up demand for such a recreation trail.

“There’s a wonderful opportunity staring us in the face,” the editorial began, “the opportunity to open up a whole new recreational dimension in the Adirondacks that will also provide important economic benefits.

“Right now it’s a dangerous, even death-defying proposition to bicycle between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. The traffic on Route 86 is heavy in the summer and fall, the shoulder is narrow and rutted. With the train tracks removed, the public would have a safe, serene, and scenic bikeway connecting the Placid and Saranac train stations. As a free-wheeling tourist or a local commuter, you could comfortably cover the nine-mile route in an hour.

“And that’s just the start,” the editorial continued. “If the bikeway were extended another 25 miles to Tupper Lake, you could cycle with ease through some of the wildest, most beautiful lake country in the northeastern United States. It would take about two hours nonstop, but why hurry when you can stop to swim, watch loons, picnic by a wilderness pond, or try your luck at fishing? Taken together, the entire 34-mile stretch from Placid to Tupper could become one of the finest biking trails anywhere.”

Fast-forward again to 2015. After years of debate, New York state (which owns the rail corridor) announces a compromise: Convert the Tri-Lakes section of the corridor into a year-round, multi-purpose trail, and extend the tourist train north from Big Moose to Tupper Lake. However, this does not satisfy the train hobbyists. They demand fully restored train service from Utica to Lake Placid. Never mind that there is no market for this kind of long-distance, backwoods service.

A recent Enterprise commentary by Larry Roth, a passionate train buff from Ravenna, south of Albany, questioned whether rail-trail proponents “really have the good of the area at heart.” Well, I think Mr. Roth should visit some other comparable rail-to-trail conversions to get a sense of how much good they do. One important benefit – but not the only one – is economic. Dedicated cycling and pedestrian trails attract tourists and stimulate business.

“Cyclists will generate from $6 million to $23 million annually in direct expenditures benefiting Lake Tahoe communities,” according to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which is developing a system of biking and walking trails around this Sierra Nevada lake. (There are interesting parallels between the Tahoe region and the Adirondack Park, and the agencies that oversee them.)

The 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail in Florida parallels a river of the same name in north-central Florida. It connects the towns of Citrus Spring, Inverness, Floral City, Istachatta and Trilby. According to the Friends of the Withlacoochee Trail, “the number of trail users continues to rise each year, and as a result, so does the direct economic impact on the communities. The 2013-14 fiscal year attendance was 405,632 and the economic impact was $30,139,500. But in 2014-15 attendance rose to 414,979 and economic impact was $35,222,119.”

The 34-mile Virginia Creeper Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains is remarkably similar to the rail-trail that will connect Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake: same length, same kind of setting, similar rural area and small towns.

“Today the sleepy towns of Abingdon and Damascus welcome about 250,000 trail riders a year, more than 25 times their combined populations,” reported Maureen Hannan in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy magazine. The Creeper Trail begins in Abingdon, population 8,000. “According to the town’s best estimates, trail-related tourism revenues stand at about $25 million a year,” the RTC reported.

But it’s not all about money, not by a long shot. The health and quality-of-life benefits of rail trails are equally important. These benefits enrich the lives of visitors and residents alike, young and old and everyone in between. They provide physical and spiritual pleasure at any time of day or year. They provide a peaceful place for biking, walking or jogging, for enjoying fresh air in a superb natural environment, whenever we feel like it. And free of charge!

The Adirondack railroad that ran from Utica to Saranac Lake was constructed in 18 months – an extraordinary engineering feat in the late 19th century. There is no earthly reason (other than bureaucratic inertia) that the tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake can’t be removed, and a well-compacted trail of crushed stone laid down, in that same time frame.

Last year, the state made its determination on the best use of the corridor, including a rail trail on the Tri-Lakes section. Most towns and villages want it, businesses want it, and outdoor enthusiasts want it. It is the one important recreational amenity still missing in the Adirondack Park.

The time for debate is over; the time for action is now.

Dick Beamish lives in Saranac Lake and is the founder of Adirondack Explorer magazine and a co-founder of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.