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Railroad fell short in several ways

The recent commentary by Bill Branson, “Correcting the rail-trail record,” is actually what is in need of correcting.

Mr. Branson continues to repeat the charge that the economic benefits of rail operations have not materialized because “New York State has never fulfilled its responsibilities under the 1996 UMP.” However, what the 1996 unit management plan actually says is, “Rail development will LARGELY DEPEND ON PRIVATELY SECURED SOURCES because, although there are potential public sources, government funding availability cannot be guaranteed” (emphasis added).

Despite the above provision, the state did step up and provide $7 million for track rehabilitation to allow the tourist service between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid to begin in 2000. The 1996 UMP envisioned this service expansion as one phase in possible full corridor restoration. The 1996 UMP estimated that this rehabilitation would only cost $1.3 million, but this wasn’t the only projection that turned out to be wildly off, given the experience of the 15 years the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid service operated.

After four years, the Saranac Lake Placid service was supposed to have gross revenue of $1.3 million, generate net operating income of $274,000 and have created 72 jobs. While some Saranac Lake store owners did report a bit more traffic in their stores when the train was running, I am not aware of any jobs that were actually created during even the 15 years the service operated. That gross revenue figure was clearly never achieved because the financial reports that have accompanied the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society’s filings with the New York Bureau of Charities show total income from ticket sales for all their rail operations to be $1.3 million. So there actually was rail service for 15 years, but empty storefronts continued to increase during that period, and there was no other apparent economic benefit.

Another phase of the expansion of rail service envisioned in the UMP was the extension of service to Big Moose. This was again all government funded, but at least it did come in close to the cost estimated in the UMP. After four years, that service was projected to generate gross revenue of $703,000 and create 46 jobs. After four years, however, the railroad now only runs 10 to 12 trains to Big Moose annually, and I certainly don’t believe there has even been one job created.

Mr. Branson also continues to claim that rail-trails do not provide many economic benefits, citing a University of Georgia study that found the Virginia Creeper only provided “minimal economic impact.” I don’t know how that study came to that conclusion, given the quote from the vice mayor of Damascus (population 813) in a Feb. 12, 2016, letter to the Enterprise from Ken Youngblood:

“I can tell you that before the Creeper Trail, we had very little transient lodging or B&Bs. Almost half the town’s buildings were empty. We now have seven bike shuttle/rental shops located within the one-mile town limit. To say that the town’s residents receive no benefit is simply not true. About 15% of our budget comes from meals and lodging.”

At that ratio of bike shops to residents, Saranac Lake would have nearly 50 bike shops. Now, no one is promising that many bike shops will spring up here, but we might see one or two new bike shops come and occupy some of the empty storefronts. Overall, the economic benefit will not likely be as dramatic as it has been in Damascus, but there will be both economic benefits as well as improvements in the quality of life with a trail that starts right in town and provides a safe place to bicycle, walk or jog. This is an amenity that will especially appeal to young families — a demographic we clearly want to attract and hold onto.

Finally, Mr. Branson continues to say that there can be a trail with the rail. The supposed plan put forward by TRAC (the Trails with Rails Action Committee) has been refuted many times, and I have yet to find a proponent of a trail with rail that has actually walked, as I have, the entire section between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake. Additionally, the 2016 UMP amendment devoted 16 pages to a section-by-section description of the serious difficulties that would be faced in constructing such a trail.

In a Dec. 12, 2014, Guest Commentary in the Enterprise, I detailed many of the concerns with the TRAC proposal that were later included in the 2016 UMP amendment. Much of the route proposed by TRAC had been laid out by Jack Drury, and he responded with his own Guest Commentary on Dec. 19 of that year. In it he said, “I don’t argue, by and large, with the concerns he raised. There are legitimate questions regarding, for example, costs and easements on private property.” Drury’s commentary continued but did not directly address any of my concerns with the proposed route. Instead, he raised questions about the rail and tie removal, and whether the rail trail would be as successful as proposed. He did propose that there should be a road-bikeable trail from Lake Placid to Lake Clear, but didn’t deal with issue of the extensive wetlands on either side of the trail — both between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake and between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear. He conceded that the rest of the route to Tupper Lake would only be suitable for mountain bikes.

So it should be obvious that two separate expansions of rail service have not come anywhere close to meeting the projected benefits. The benefits of this rail trail are, of course, still clearly just projections, but we know now what doesn’t work. It’s time to move on and try a new approach to improving the local economy and quality of life.

Tony Goodwin lives in Keene Valley and is a board member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.

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