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Correcting the rail-trail record

My concerns result from the Guest Commentary in the Dec. 20, 2019, Adirondack Daily Enterprise that presented arguments in favor of rail removal between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. The commentary relied on incorrect facts and bad logic. I am compelled to correct the record.

First, the assertions that rail-to-trail conversions have a positive economic impact fail to consider the lost economic impact of tourist-oriented rail operations such as the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. In the economic analysis of the 1996 unit management plan for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor, it was stated that “enhanced rail operations would create 92 new railroad jobs, 133 new tourist related jobs, and 339 new jobs for the actual construction phase.” Total annual economic impact was estimated at $9.2 million in addition to $30 million in economic impact from rail construction (See ARPS vs. NYS et al, April 11, 2016, ex. C, Stone Consulting, pg. 10.) Because New York state has never fulfilled its responsibilities under the 1996 UMP, these economic benefits have not been realized. They will be realized if the state commits to full rail restoration from Lake Placid to Snow Junction.

The ASR’s limited service between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, combined with the Rail Explorer rail bike attraction, had a significant impact that has vanished as a result of the forced suspension of that service in 2016. We estimate that 45,000 fewer tourists walked the streets of Saranac Lake village during each of the past two seasons. It is no secret that the number of empty storefronts in Saranac Lake continues to grow. Those 90,000 tourists who could have come to ride the train and the rail bikes would surely have made a difference to the economy of Saranac Lake if the state had not prevented ASR’s continued operation.

Second, studies were cited of two very specific rail-to-trail conversions in Virginia that are not representative of rail-to-trail conversions nationwide. Of more relevance to New York state is a study of eight important New York state trail systems, done to determine economic impacts on the local communities, in which it was concluded that “it would seem that this measure, indicating a high proportion of local users, shows that trails have a limited economic impact on their communities.” (See ARPS vs. NYS et al, April 11, 2016, ex. G, J, Every Mile Counts, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, pg. 53.) The claims about the two allegedly successful Virginia trails do not hold up. A University of Georgia study (see APRS vs. NYS et al, April 11, 2016, ex. G,I, a case study of the Virginia Creeper trail, Bowker, Bergstrom, Gill, Dept. of Agriculture and Applied Economics, University of Georgia, pp. 241, 243, 249) of the Virginia Creeper trail found MINIMAL incremental economic impact of rail-to-trail conversion, even considering the trail’s proximity to Interstate 81; that is not an advantage enjoyed by Saranac Lake.

Thirdly, there was no alternative passenger use of the rail lines cited in Virginia, so the local residents in those municipalities were not faced with the prospect of trading away existing tourism-generating rail infrastructure.

There are already uncounted recreational trails available for use in the Adirondacks, and the incremental economic impact of one more trail is likely to be small, if any. A study cited by New York state of the proposed trail conversion between Lake Placid and Tupper lake found that “due to the many trail options that currently exist for non-bike trail users in the region, trail users would likely spend their money in the region regardless of the addition of this proposed new trail.” (See ARPS vs NYS et al, April 11, 2016, ex. G,a, Camion Associates for ADK Action, pg. 20.) There is only one rail line into the important Tri-Lakes tourism region, and ASR and Rail Explorers have already demonstrated that, when operated, the rail infrastructure is a significant incremental economic attraction. During the trial before the state Supreme Court, New York state did not dispute the economic data, but stated that it is not bound by economic facts or by public opinion.

A modern rail service to Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid will support economic activity for the region in a way no new trail possibly can. A reactivated rail line brings with it the prospect of enhanced tourism, and improved transportation to and from the rest of the nation for people of all ages and abilities.

The concerns laid out in the 2016 legal action remain unaddressed by the state. The filing (ARPS v. NYS et al, April 11, 2016, exhibits L, M, and N) speaks to historic preservation as a matter of law. Underscoring this, in his Feb. 4, 2016, letter to the Bureau of State Land Management, John Bonafide, director, Technical Preservation Services, Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, stated clearly that multiple adverse impacts could be anticipated as a result of rail removal, up to and including loss of federal funding for existing projects and potential recovery of federal funding for past projects. The state has not satisfactorily addressed these concerns and appears to have no plan to do so. The two primary historic preservation agencies in the Adirondacks have refused to participate in what they consider is a sham.

The right answer for the Tri-Lakes region and for all of the Adirondacks is clearly rails WITH trails. As a first step, TRAC (the Trails with Rails Action Committee) has developed a detailed plan for parallel trails with rails between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake that is economically feasible and gives the community the best of both worlds. The state’s claim that trails with rails is impossible is demonstrably false, as our legal filing showed. (See ARPS vs NYS et al, April 11, 2016, ex. K.)

The ASR urges the residents of the Adirondacks to support our railroad and oppose trail conversion.

Bill Branson is president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which is based in Utica and does business as the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

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