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Bill Branson, take a hike

 Bill Branson has again misleadingly claimed that rail is better than trail for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor (“Correcting the rail-trail record,” Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Jan. 7), asserting that pro-trail arguments are based on “incorrect facts and bad logic.” Let’s examine his claims and evidence.

First, Branson cites the 1996 New York state unit management plan as the basis for his assertion that rail is better than trail. Rather than using up-to-date information, he points to 24-year-old predictions. Then Branson asserts that the favorable 1996 predictions were not realized because “New York state has never fulfilled its responsibilities under the 1996 UMP.”

However, the 1996 UMP stated, “RAIL DEVELOPMENT WILL LARGELY DEPEND UPON PRIVATELY SECURED FUNDING SOURCES BECAUSE, ALTHOUGH THERE ARE POTENTIAL PUBLIC SOURCES, GOVERNMENT FUNDING AVAILABILITY CAN NOT BE GUARANTEED” (https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/remplacidump.pdf, page xvii). The Adirondack Scenic Railroad claims that the state failed to fulfill its responsibilities, but the fact is that ASR failed to fund its dreams under the explicit terms of the UMP. New York state has generously reimbursed many ASR expenses and funded its new maintenance facility.

Branson claims there have been 45,000 fewer tourists in the Tri-Lakes yearly as a result of the departure of ASR and Rail Explorers, with no supporting evidence. Then he suggests that empty storefronts in Saranac Lake are attributable to the loss of ASR and Rail Explorers, instead of apologizing for ASR legal obstruction of the rail-trail that has directly and substantially harmed the Tri-Lakes’ economy by delaying state-funded work in the region under the state’s 2017 proposal.

Branson then tries to make the case that rail trails don’t benefit regions economically. I encourage readers to reread the robust evidence presented at https://www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com/opinion/guest-commentary/2019/12/those-still-railing-about-the-rail-trail-should-choo-on-this/ and compare it to Branson’s arguments.

More broadly, look at how many regions are choosing to benefit from rail-trails (https://www.railstotrails.org/trailblog/2019/december/16/greet-the-new-rail-trails-of-2019/ https://www.railstotrails.org/trailblog/2018/december/17/meet-americas-new-rail-trails-of-2018/, https://www.railstotrails.org/trailblog/2017/december/11/nine-hot-new-rail-trails-in-2017/, https://www.rei.com/blog/cycle/the-great-american-rail-trail-is-on-the-way). How many regions of the country are making major new investments in tourist trains? Are you willing to bet your community’s future on the premise that Bill Branson is smarter than the rest of the nation?

Then Branson asserts that a rail-trail would add little value to the Tri-Lakes region, because the region already has trails. When the region alternates between rain and cold, and steep, narrow Adirondack trails are continually muddy or icy, how valuable would it be to have a wide, level, all-weather crushed-stone trail where residents and visitors could enjoy nature and engage in outdoor recreation — whether a spirited bike ride or a casual stroll? If Bill Branson takes a hike on a rail-trail, he might like it.

Historic preservation is Branson’s next topic, but he fails to discuss how ASR actually engages in historic preservation — other than by going through the motions of what railroads stopped doing in the region a half-century ago. The rail trail will accomplish more in terms of historic education and commemoration of railroading in the region, with placards, exhibits, etc.

After Branson accuses trail advocates of “incorrect facts and bad logic” and fails to present convincing evidence of the value of ASR extension, he shifts to discussing chopped-up little trails that would add little value to the region. He then praises rail biking, which evidently consists in the U.S. of three tiny operations by two tiny companies (https://www.themanual.com/outdoors/best-rail-bike-tours/) — hardly offering great promise. Branson then inexplicably concludes, “The right answer for the Tri-Lakes region and for all of the Adirondacks is clearly rails WITH trails.”

Once again, ASR has presented unsubstantiated and misleading arguments that fail to address the following important points:

¯ The Tri-Lakes region already has two decades’ experience with ASR, and broad dissatisfaction from that experience led to the proposal for the rail-trail.

¯ ASR is financially and operationally weak, obstructive and not a good partner for such a large and costly venture.

¯ There is no evidence for the viability of a 140-mile tourist train from Utica to Lake Placid (at taxpayers’ expense!), given that the longest-distance tourist train in the nation is only 67.5 miles — not much more than ASR’s current 62.6 miles from Utica to Big Moose.

¯ Costs of ASR extension would be greater and very unpredictable — given the potential for ASR costs to exceed their revenues, requiring substantial annual state subsidies — and there is little evidence of economic or other benefits to the region.

¯ The costs and economic/quality-of-life benefits of a rail-trail would be predictable and much more favorable.

¯ The environmental impact of ASR extension would consist of a toxic brew of soot, air pollution, carbon emissions and herbicide.

ASR had a two-decade opportunity to succeed in the Tri-Lakes, but it failed. It is past time to move on to a clearly more promising option for the corridor north of Big Moose, while ASR continues to wheeze along its nearly longest-in-the-nation route from Utica to Big Moose.

The extension of the struggling tourist train from Utica to Tupper Lake, let alone Lake Placid, would be a colossal boondoggle and waste of taxpayers’ money for decades to come. Conversely, based on experience nationwide, the rail- trail connecting Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake will provide a major boost to the economy and quality of life for the Tri-Lakes. Then extending the rail-trail south from Tupper to Old Forge is the logical next step.

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

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