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It ain’t over till it’s over

As Garrison Keillor never said, “It has not been a quiet few weeks in the Tri-Lakes.” Every day there’s something new in the rail-trail fight.

The moose in the room

Official justifications for the rail trail gloss over the agenda behind it. Wilderness advocates, snowmobilers, developers, property owners, some business owners, anti-government types – they all have reasons to want the rails gone, most of which cancel each other out.

The loudness of local opposition to the rails should not be mistaken for public demand for one more trail in an area full of trails. The trail is the fig leaf providing cover for the anti-rail agenda.

Divide and conquer

The 1996 unit management plan decision splitting corridor administration between the state Department of Envronmental Conservation and Department of Transportation set up this conflict. DEC does not “get” railroads. While rail interests worked with DOT to restore the rails, DEC failed to build one mile of trail beside it in 20 years – despite a mandate to do so. Where would the corridor be today if DEC had been fully committed?

The 1996 UMP did get one big thing right: managing the entire corridor as one unit for economic, environmental and historic reasons. As the last intact rail corridor into the central Adirondacks, it’s irreplaceable. A large part of its value is because it IS intact: Size matters.

A key part of the anti-rail strategy was splitting the corridor. It pits one community against another. It gives veto power to local interests over the larger public interest. The UMP review process focused where anti-rail forces were loudest. Public input was slanted in the same fashion, giving more weight to “local” input than the balance of the public.

Voodoo economics

The justification for the Alternative 7 plan rests on questionable assumptions, with suspicion the findings were “cut to fit” a decision that had already been made. There’s a joke about a man hiring an accountant. He asked all the candidates, “How much is 2 and 2?” The one who got the job was the one who asked “How much do you want it to be?”

The Rail Explorers embarrassed anti-rail groups and the state. They arrived and drew thousands of new visitors. They were paying the state $6,400 a month and around $10,000 a month to the ASR. Their monthly payroll averaged $75,000. Add their synergy with the ASR, which serves thousands of riders, ridership that continues to grow. The pro-trail narrative that the rails were failing fell apart.

What Rail Explorers couldn’t handle were the political forces against them. DEC’s untimely “discovery” of problems with permits and newly imposed red tape prevented them from getting financing to address issues DEC raised. New York’s reputation as a business-hostile environment with an arbitrary bureaucracy is confirmed once more.

The forced eviction of the Rail Explorers, the ASR and the thousands of paying visitors they served is going to blow a hole in the local economy that no “free” trail is going to fill. Speaking of which

Bait and switch

Ever go chasing a bargain, only to have a sales clerk steer you to something more expensive and sell you add-ons? Ever have a contractor tell you there are extras his bid didn’t cover? Welcome to the rail trail.

The trail is going to be 34 miles of stone dust composite – but communities can pave sections in the future, according to DEC. Translation: If you want to use it with wheelchairs, strollers, roller blades, etc., as promised – prepare to pay extra.

Stone dust trails need to be periodically redone, can be torn up by mountain bikes and can have issues with water. Other “extras?” Parking areas, rest stops, shelters, picnic facilities, connector trails, etc. This may be why trail planning is behind closed doors – and no results will be released before the November elections.

The reason for the trail keeps changing. It will draw cycling visitors – but no, it’s really for local users. No wait – it’s bait to attract people with money who’ll relocate to the area once they’ve ridden their bikes here.

So it’s no longer about tourism – it’s about gentrification? Raising property values – with taxes to match? This justifies driving away two businesses that create jobs, draw thousands of visitors and pump money into the local economy? It’s all about inflating a real estate bubble? It’s nuts!

Cashing the reality check

The legal challenge has already justified itself; the state has acknowledged title problems in the corridor among other issues. DOT and DEC have been judge and jury on the corridor, and the Adirondack Park Agency has largely swallowed their findings down whole. The challenge is the last chance to avoid buyer’s remorse, the closest thing to an independent review Alternative 7 is going to get.

If Alternative 7 is rejected, this is good news. No giant hole in the economy, no multi-year wait before trail benefits appear, and trail planning can still go forward – with adjustments by DEC.

With rails, title issues disappear. Let snowmobiles use the corridor as they already do. This way they don’t risk getting locked out. With declining numbers and crazy winter weather, preserving growing rail income over declining sledder revenues makes sense.

This would allow DEC to design a trail for the other multi-users, one faster, cheaper, easier to route around problem areas, and to attractions along the way. Trails already parallel sections of the line – make use of them!

The Rails-To-Trails Conservancy has a 2013 report explaining how it works.

“Rails-with-trails are safe, common, and increasing in number. These are the standout findings of America’s Rails-with-Trail Report, a defining new study on the development of multi-use trails alongside active freight, passenger and tourist rail lines.”

Amtrak has added bicycle baggage space to the Lake Shore Limited and is promoting cycling in New York. The ASR already has bike and rail services. Full rail service to the Tri-Lakes will bring cyclists from around the country. Rails with trails = win-win!

Larry Roth lives in Ravena.