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The rail trail versus reality

Anyone who thought the Adirondack Park Agency decision would end the rails-versus-trails debate was an optimist – and recent developments are making clear how flawed the “compromise” is proving to be. Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates spokesman Lee Keet inadvertently opened a can of worms when he told the Albany Times Union he wanted trail construction to start this summer.

When Larry Roth pointed out in an Adirondack Daily Enterprise commentary that Mr. Keet was calling for major construction in the Tri-Lakes at the height of the summer tourist season after a terrible winter for tourism, he quickly backed off, calling his own idea “silly.” He ignored Roth’s observation that the railroad portion of the compromise could go ahead now without disrupting the region at all, but took strong issue with the suggestion that trail construction should be delayed until it could be seen if the railroad part of the plan was working before doing anything irrevocable. Keet dropped two bombshells.

First, he claimed that every week without the trail was costing the region $500,000 – a casino-level $19-plus million a year based purely on estimates from the Rail Trail Conservancy group! Second, he admitted DEC expected it would take at least three years to build the trail – though he insisted it could be done in two.

Bob Hest, in a follow-up commentary, took apart Mr. Keet’s $500,000 to calculate how a free trail could generate a casino-level money – in just 40 weeks, around $20 million a year. (Snowmobilers keep their 12-week season.) Hest figured it would take around 1,500 people EVERY DAY, each spending around $50, to meet those numbers. They’d mostly have to be visitors, not locals, to make it work. IF that many people actually showed up – and it’s far more likely they wouldn’t – there’d be problems with traffic, crowd control, etc.

The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism’s 2014 Leisure Visitor Study reports $3,950,000 per week (for 40 weeks) for the entire Essex County region. Expecting a “free” trail to boost that by another 13 percent all by itself is a real stretch. Investing in the railroad would be far more effective and far less disruptive, and has a far more realistic chance of succeeding.

ARTA board member David Banks fired back – completely missing Hest’s point. Saying that hordes descending on local businesses was the reason for the trail, he failed to acknowledge every weekend would have to be like the 4th of July and Labor Day combined to make it happen. He repeated ARTA’s claims that no one rides the trains, no one wants to ride the trains, they’re a failure and a waste of taxpayer money. He apparently missed the recent ADE article reporting record ASR ridership in 2015 and even bigger plans for 2016.

He wants to replace railroad operations, which take in rider fares from people who are nearly all visitors and whose money helps support the entire corridor, with a “free” trail – the costs of which will be entirely borne by taxpayers in the hopes enough visitors will show up and spend enough money to pay for it all. He completely ignores the contributions from the Rail Explorers.

ARTA founder Dick Beamish weighed in with recycled ARTA talking points from 10 years ago that were wrong then and are even more out of date now. He dragged out old stories of miracle trails elsewhere that are showering communities with vast sums of money.

Never mind that his user numbers on the Virginia Creeper Trail have been debunked, that the money just isn’t there and the trails don’t compare to this area. He fails to mention none of them replaced working rail lines or resources on the state and national registers of historic places.

He also repeats his claim that the roads are too dangerous for cyclists to use. If so, how are they supposed to get to local businesses to spend all that money? He ignores the groups staging cycling tours through the Adirondacks using those same roads, including one that will include a leg from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid.

It’s obvious that ARTA’s support for the rail trail is not that well thought out. Its members’ insistence that trail could be built in only two years shows they are ignoring the real-world issues that have to be addressed.

The trail has to be built to meet state Olympic Regional Development Authority requirements, for one. All of the local towns in the travel corridor will need to coordinate with the state Department of Environmental Conservation on what will be built, where it will be built, how it will be operated, maintained – and paid for. ARTA is catering to cyclists because they offer a national anti-rail program, but a real multi-user trail has to work for everyone.

ARTA’s insistence on removing the rails as soon as possible is more than a little suspicious. ARTA includes snowmobilers – who want the rails gone. It includes wilderness advocates – who want the rails gone. It includes people thinking only about their property values – who want the rails gone. It includes people who think taxes are too high – who want the rails gone. It includes people who think everyone would rather drive – who want the rails gone. It includes people who just want the rails gone, period.

Is it so hard to believe that once the rails are gone, all of this passion for a miraculous bike path will mysteriously become less urgent? Is it unreasonable to wonder how solid ARTA’s promises are? If they don’t hold up, it costs ARTA nothing – but they do get the rails removed. Mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, the area will be losing the visitors the trains and the rail bikes bring in, the money they spend, the jobs they create. That’s millions of real dollars* and thousands of real people. That’s living history that also works for the Tri-Lakes region. For the price of the flawed compromise, that’s a direct connection to the New York State Thruway and America’s national passenger system, Amtrak.

We have all that now – or we could throw it away for a too-good-to-be-true ARTA fantasy.

Allen Dunham lives in Saranac Lake and is a member of the Adirondack Rail Preservation Society Board of Directors, Saranac Lake Northern Division.

* During the 2015 operating season in the Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Lake Clear portion of the travel corridor, users of Rail Explorers and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad would have spent a combined $2,590,000, according to the ROOST formula. This spending converts to an economic impact of $4,302,550, using Camion Associates and ROOST multipliers. This economic impact does not include combined ASR and Rail Explorers ticket sales of $530,000.