A year of folly on rails vs. trail

With 2016 winding to a close, now is a time to take stock of the rail-vs.-trail situation. It has been an eventful year.

The state’s decision to go ahead with the so-called compromise plan was followed by some big changes at the Adirondack Park Agency. While not all related to the rail-vs.-trail issue, the APA has had a year of contention over policies and decisions that show getting consensus on anything in the Park is not any easier than it has ever been.

The trail advocates are still advocating removal of the rest of the rail line all the way back to Thendara. So much for those who are telling the rail supporters to just “get over it.” The fight is going to continue one way or another. It’s to be expected that trail supporters will oppose efforts to capitalize on returning rail service to Tupper Lake.

While the station is there and ready, the area around it needs development to take full advantage of rail service that will finally connect the Tri-Lakes to Amtrak at Utica. Where’s the planning for that, trail people? It will not help hotel efforts in Saranac Lake either, with trains stopping miles away that could otherwise bring travelers right into town. If the rails go, got buses?

The closed-door meetings the Department of Environmental Conservation has been running with selected “community” representatives have been telling. The real movers behind the scenes are now making themselves known, along with some other things.

If you thought the “world-class trail” would be paved, forget it — it’ll be a crushed stone mix. Paving will be extra, as will other things like parking, shelters, etc. Suggestions that the trail would be used in part for Olympic training have been dropped, which should not have been a surprise. A trail with minimal grades or curves is hardly a realistic course for cross-country skiing competition. The trail has become a lot more modest in scope; if people want more, you’ll have to pay for it yourselves.

This winter is off to a better start for outdoor activities than last year’s winter without snow. When there’s a lot of snow, it doesn’t matter if the rails are there or not. When there’s no snow, no one shows up. The problem isn’t the rails — it’s unpredictable nature. Betting the region’s economy on a marginal improvement for snowmobilers against the proven benefits of the rails makes the local economy shakier than ever. The railroad is one of the few activities in the area than can operate regardless of the weather. Trading it away for a chancy gain for just three months of the year is a bad bet.

The Rail Explorers have been ridden out of town thanks to the kind of anti-business bureaucratic sabotage New York state excels at. Thousands of people came to Saranac Lake specifically to ride the rail bikes. In doing so, they directly created jobs and brought money into the local economy. A free bike trail is not going to be able to match that — and it’s certainly not going to draw visitors to Saranac Lake in anything like the same numbers.

It will take three years for the trail to go into full operation — IF the state comes through with the money. Passenger service could be restored all the way through to Lake Placid in one year — and the trains and rail bikes could keep running through that time. Instead, two successful enterprises that make a big contribution to the region are going to be driven out.

When DEC takes control of the north end of the corridor, it will never permit rails to return. That is the point anti-rail forces are counting on. Rails AND trails work elsewhere, and could here, to mutual benefit. They want the rails gone — the rest is marketing to sell the trail.

The economic case against the rails has never made sense, except to those who expect to benefit directly from their removal. For the rest of the community, it’s only going to make things harder. A number of local businesses have recently gone on record supporting the Rail Explorers. The impact of thousands of railroad passengers can’t be discounted either. Adirondack Scenic Railroad ridership numbers keep going up.

And there’s trouble on the horizon. In case anyone hadn’t noticed, OPEC is driving oil prices up again. Car-based tourism is going to take a hit. Who will drive hours to ride a bike path when there are so many where people already live? Who’s going to drive up to the Adirondacks except for unique attractions? A dedicated transportation system like the railroad will be priceless when people stop driving for casual reasons but still want a travel experience they can’t get elsewhere.

State and trail advocates deride the history of the rail line, forgetting that it made the region what it is today. Here’s a quote from Charles H. Burnett’s “Conquering the Wilderness — the Building of the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad”:

“David Bennett Hill, while Governor of New York, described the Adirondacks as ‘the Nation’s pleasure ground and sanitarium,’ and yet, prior to the construction of the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad in 1891-92, this region was for the most part inaccessible except to a comparatively few hunters and fishermen who were willing to undertake long trips by stage or buckboard, or still longer and more arduous journeys through lakes and streams and over numerous portages or carries. An Adirondack Park had been talked of and even created, but there was no way for the people as a whole to get to it and enjoy it. It was very much as if a great city had a park with a wall around it.

“It was Dr. Webb who made the Adirondacks a practical reality to the people of the United States.”

Here’s a new year’s resolution for 2017: Save the rails. There’s still time to donate to the legal defense fund.

Larry Roth lives in Ravena.


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