Rail-trail debate mustn’t be guided by inaccurate usage estimates
(Editor’s note: The following was submitted to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation regarding its plan for the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor, which would convert 34 miles of railroad between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid into a multi-use trail and upgrade 45 miles of railroad from Tupper Lake south to Big Moose, connecting to Utica.)
I have been involved with successful tourism attractions across the USA and Canada since 1976. Larry Malski and I co-authored for the Adirondack North Country Association the corridor feasibility study in 1990. Two years later I assisted with the business plan for the Adirondack Centennial Railroad startup. Shortly later, I researched and authored the national and state application to create the longest railroad historical district in the United States.
I have assisted over 20 companies as plan of their business planning and setup of operations. I also was the general manager of four railroads, two of which had tourism operations on them. I am an outdoor recreation and trail advocate, and have been a member for several years of the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
First, my over 30 years as a consultant has painfully taught me, do not believe projections of visitor use of any attraction. More often than not, even though we use experience and statistical methods that are finely tuned, we get it wrong for a number of reasons. A classic example of this was a study done around 1980 for a tourism attraction in the Catskills that was roughly 100 miles from New York City. The consultant projected that, based on the population of the metropolitan region and the Catskills site being easily accessible, a certain percentage of the region’s population, 100,000, would pay admission each year. With this great information, investment came and the operation began. The results were horrible: The eight-year average attendance was only 11,000 each year.
My work with the Disney company helped me to understand the definition of two words, “consumer behavior.” There are two types of basic attractions, primary and secondary. The primary ones create the region’s market. Examples are Niagara Falls, Disney World and the Grand Canyon. Secondary attractions fill out the time and money that tourists commit to a journey.
A trail, unless it is a bridge over the New River Gorge, is not a primary attraction. Sometimes they are barely a secondary one. Statistical studies have shown that too many secondary attractions can actually be detrimental to the region’s economy. As they can dilute and further divide the tourists’ time and money. As a friend of the Adirondacks, I fear for the possible negative effects on existing businesses.
As the author of the historic district application, I am awed by the dismissive narrative for remediation of the historical impacts of the rail-to-trail conversion. The law states: If an undertaking would have an adverse impact on a historic property, the undertaking state agency must consider all prudent and feasible alternatives that would avoid or mitigate adverse impacts. Any removal of the rail track infrastructure is a significant adverse affect.
The 1932 Olympics could not and would not have been approved by the International Olympic Committee without the assurance of reliable rail passenger service. In this way alone, the existence of the rail corridor changed the history of Lake Placid and the overall region. Removing the rails rips apart the cultural fabric of the historic district and destroys the significance to the Lake Placid region.
Dr. Trudeau and the history of the Saranac Lake cure cottages would have been dramatically less significant with the accessible transportation of the rail network of that time. The community of Saranac Lake would be probably only a shadow of its current status if the railroad had not made the TB fresh-air cure convenient to the public and the famous.
When I took Disney on a tour of this corridor, it was the bureaucratic one-year lease system that drove them to invest in other projects. If Disney had the option of a long-term lease with this corridor, they were ready to do an unbelievable effort of due diligence fleshing out what they could add to our region. We cannot compare what the impacts were of the small train operations at the Lake Placid end, because a real opportunity for impacts was never financially possible under a short-term annual lease authority for New York state.
I stress in conclusion that once it is gone, I have only seen a couple of examples where the benefits of rail tourism were able to be restored. Do not put a lock on this region’s long-term economics with an inaccurate assessment of fake tourism benefits.
Gary Landrio lives in Warren, Pennsylvania.