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The Adirondack travel corridor: boondoggle or public benefit?

Bill Branson of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad wants to take over all of the state-owned travel corridor that runs from Remsen (21 miles north of Utica) 119 miles north to Lake Placid. This would extend his Utica-based tourist train route to 140 miles, twice the length of any other tourist train in the country. It would also waste public funds on a project for which there is little demand while blocking a far more productive use of the corridor.

Better train service (both freight and passenger) is a great unmet need in this country, especially between population centers, but Mr. Branson’s tourist train would be a massive, state-funded boondoggle.

This is an important decision regarding the historic, state-owned corridor through the Adirondack Park — tourist train or recreational rail trail? Fortunately, we have abundant evidence to rely on.

We know that ASR had 20 years to prove itself while operating along the corridor, yet it has provided little or no benefit to Adirondack communities north of Old Forge.

We also know about other non-freight tourist trains nationwide. The longest is 67.5 miles, the White Pass and Yukon Route in Alaska. The existing ASR route from Utica to Big Moose (north of Old Forge) is 62.6 miles, the longest in the eastern U.S., though it gets little use north of Old Forge. The evidence is irrefutable: There is little demand for day-long tourist trains because few people want to spend all day gazing out the window of a train going 30 mph.

Fortunately, rail-to-trail conversions have enjoyed enormous success and provided robust benefits to communities nationwide, with new rail trails opening all the time. They vary in length from a few miles to more than 250 miles, providing benefits to local economies and improving health and quality of life for residents and visitors of all ages and physical abilities.

Still, New York state has proposed funding rail rehabilitation for 44.3 miles from Big Moose north to Tupper Lake, enabling ASR to operate a 107-mile tourist train from Utica to Tupper. In response, Mr. Branson has demanded that taxpayers fund his tourist train another 33 miles beyond Tupper, a total of 140 miles to Lake Placid!

How much would the state’s rail extension cost taxpayers? At least $16 million to Tupper, much more to Lake Placid, but that’s only a down payment. The state would likely then need to prop up an unprofitable, over-extended ASR with endless annual taxpayer subsidies. Whether the distance is 107 miles from Utica to Tupper or 140 miles to Lake Placid, any extension of ASR’s current 62.6-mile route would be an open-ended experiment with ASR as a financially weak partner, relying on public funding far into the future. The potential cost and uncertainty of an extended ASR are not in the interest of the region or the state, particularly since other productive uses of the corridor would be severely limited or excluded.

So please, Gov. Cuomo and New York state, build that rail trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake as you have proposed, without further delay. Do not spend any taxpayer money on rail infrastructure north of Big Moose. Then, if the rail trail succeeds as expected, extend it to Old Forge at a lower and predictable cost, thus creating a trans-Adirondack recreational rail trail second to none. What better way to bolster the economy, promote public health and further the quality of life of our rural communities?

David Banks is a former resident of Lake Clear and former board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. He now lives and rides rail trails in Maryland.