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Ten years of wishful thinking

Rail vs. trail for the Tri-Lakes

Ten years ago, the debate over rail vs. trail began in earnest, and the proponents on both sides are still going strong. The debate has been centered on the best use of the old railroad line connecting Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. Many see this 34-mile stretch of publicly owned “travel corridor” as having great potential as an all-season recreational trail for biking, walking, jogging, birdwatching, smoother snowmobiling, etc. At the same time, a handful of passionate train buffs continue to insist, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, that the corridor should be devoted to tourist-train service.

Year after year, there has been an unending torrent of wishful thinking from both sides. One kind is wishing is reality based, while the other kind often relies on what is best be described as a pipe dream. The Great Debate first started on the opinion pages of the Adirondack Explorer, a bimonthly news magazine covering the Adirondack Park. It began with a 2009 commentary by Jim McCulley, the snowmobiling advocate from Lake Placid who has long called for improved winter use of the corridor by removing the old tracks and ties. The Explorer next published a debate in January 2010 on the topic, “Should railroad tracks be replaced by a trail?” Tony Goodwin argued for a multi-use “rail trail” that could add a whole new recreational dimension to the region.

Outpouring of letters

Soon the Explorer followed up with an editorial endorsing this idea and inviting input from readers. The result was an outpouring of letters to the editor, almost all of them enthusiastic about the corridor conversion. Before long the debate shifted to the opinion page of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. It seems that no other subject has commanded as much attention in this space, year after year, up to and including the latest spate of commentaries.

The state, which owns the travel corridor, is now committed to removing the tracks and building the trail on the Tri-Lakes section, with work scheduled to begin later this year. But the wishful thinking continues, as expressed in the Jan. 25 commentary in the Enterprise by Bob DeMaro, a former Saranac Lake resident now living near Phoenix, Arizona. Mr. DeMaro wishes that the congested interstate highways around Phoenix and across the country, with their “bumper-to-bumper tractor trailers,” be replaced by a “better way of travel.”

“I feel that going back to rails is the answer,” he wrote, and what reasonable person could not agree? Most advanced countries of the world have high-speed, energy-efficient, state-supported train systems connecting their major population centers. But Mr. DeMaro took wishful thinking to new heights when he suggested that train service is needed in the Adirondacks to facilitate commuting between Wilmington and Tupper Lake. It’s certainly true that trains should play a much greater role in our transportation mix, but only when there’s a real need and demand for them.

Negative wishful thinking

Earlier in January, Bill Branson, who heads the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, engaged in another kind of wishful thinking — the negative kind — when he belittled the Virginia Creeper Trail, a rail-to-trail conversion in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. Mr. Branson claimed that the VCT has had only a “minimal incremental economic impact” on Damascus, a previously struggling community of just under a thousand residents, midway along the 34-mile trail. Mr. Branson’s commentary angered Michael Wright, who runs several trail-related businesses in Damascus.

“False, misleading and self-serving!” is how he described Mr. Branson’s put-down. “This community owes most everything, and the communities surrounding the trail all owe something, to the fact that the Virginia Creeper Trail exists as a recreation destination.”

This rail-to-trail success story has been repeated hundreds of times around the country, as obsolete rail lines are turned into popular recreational trails. As David Banks, an avid cyclist and rail trail advocate, noted in another recent commentary, there is “compelling evidence that (the Tri-Lakes trail) would mirror the great successes of rail trails nationwide, bringing visitors to the region while improving health and quality of life.”

Pipe-dream predictions

On Jan. 9, in another guest opinion, Tony Goodwin (who helped start the discussion back in 2010) recalled two earlier examples of wishful thinking of the pipe-dream variety. The railroad promoters once predicted that 72 jobs would be created when the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid train began service 20 years ago. But after 15 years of sporadic, seasonal operation, it was hard to identify even one local job produced by tourist train — or to see any real benefit to local economies. The railroad company also predicted that expansion of its tourist train from Old Forge to Big Moose would generate 46 jobs in four years. Four years later, the railroad was running only 10 to 12 trains a year to Big Moose. There’s no sign of any new jobs, or any economic benefit that would begin to justify the public cost of rehabilitating that section of the corridor.

“It should be obvious that the two separate expansions of rail service have not come anywhere close to meeting the projected benefits,” Mr. Goodwin concluded. “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.”

A heap of wishful thinking (the positive, reality-based kind) has also come from local businesses and local governments, eager to see this historic travel corridor put into use as a regional amenity, to be enjoyed by people of all ages and physical abilities. This seems like a good time, at long last, to end the debate and get on with the job.

Dick Beamish lives in Middlebury, Vermont, and is the founder of the Adirondack Explorer magazine and a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.

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