End the fantasy of ASR extension

All should applaud Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to construct a 34-mile rail trail connecting Lake Placid with Tupper Lake. This recreational resource will broadly benefit the region by expanding demand for lodging, meals, bicycle and snowmobile rental and service, provisions, entertainment, etc. It will also make the Tri-Lakes an even more desirable place to live, work and raise a family.

After many years of unfulfilled promises from the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and a relatively small group of tourist train boosters, the governor has wisely moved to convert the northernmost section of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor into a rail trail that should have been built long ago.

The other part of Gov. Cuomo’s 2016 plan for the corridor was to extend ASR’s current Utica-Big Moose route north to Tupper Lake. However, when ASR filed its legal action to obstruct the state’s plan for construction of a multi-use trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake, it chose to bite the hand that feeds it. ASR’s campaign to torpedo the Tri-Lakes rail trail should relieve the governor and state taxpayers of any obligation to support a costly extension of the tourist train beyond Big Moose.

ASR’s existing route from Utica to Big Moose is already one of the longest-distance tourist train routes in the nation, but it is not well developed. For example, they travel to Big Moose only rarely. Extending the route north to Tupper Lake appears even less promising. The project’s financial viability is very much in doubt, nor does there appear to be any significant economic benefit to the region. There has been no serious effort to estimate long-term costs to taxpayers for annual subsidies to ASR when revenue from an extended tourist line falls short of operating costs.

To avoid what has all the makings of a classic boondoggle, New York state should formally postpone any plans for ASR extension north from Big Moose. If supported by the initial success of the Tri-Lakes rail-trail, the state should set aside the Tupper Lake-Big Moose segment of the travel corridor for enhanced snowmobile and mountain bike uses, made possible by the removal of the century-old rails and rotting ties. Over time, improved surfacing of the rail bed from Tupper Lake to Big Moose will enable those riding thinner-tired bicycles to journey west and south through the Adirondacks from Lake Placid, with stops at Ray Brook, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear, Saranac Inn and Fish Creek Pond Campground, Floodwood and St. Regis Canoe Area, Tupper Lake, Piercefield, Conifer, Mount Arab, Horseshoe, Lake Lila, Beaver River, Big Moose and Eagle Bay along the way to Old Forge. This one-of-a-kind trail would provide a wilderness adventure on two wheels without equal in the eastern United States, or anywhere else for that matter.

Railroads that connect population centers should be supported and perfected, as many countries have done in Europe and Asia. Where it makes sense, railroad transportation is energy efficient and environmentally desirable. But spending many millions in taxpayer dollars on a slow-moving, very-long-distance tourist train, a trip that relatively few people might want to experience and fewer still to repeat, makes no sense at all.

ASR had its opportunity. It tried hard for two decades and failed to deliver. New York state and the Adirondack Park region now have a far more promising opportunity to move forward with a dynamic plan for this extraordinary travel corridor. The unrealistic dreams of a handful of train hobbyists should not be allowed to thwart the economic and recreational potential of the region.

David Banks lives in Rockville, Maryland. He is a former resident of Lake Clear and a former board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, but is no longer affiliated with that organization.