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An open letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, about Bill Branson

Gov. Cuomo, as a leader in the effort to convert the travel corridor connecting the Tri-Lakes area into a recreational trail for residents and visitors, for walkers, joggers, bicyclists and winter sports enthusiasts of all ages and abilities, you should know that Bill Branson’s latest Adirondack Daily Enterprise commentary (Feb. 4) is yet another in a long line of misrepresentations and evasions on behalf of his Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

Branson misrepresentations

What was Branson’s message of Feb. 4? He started by discussing “locals vs. non-locals,” claiming that the Adirondack rail trail would attract few non-local users.

Branson characterized New York state’s “Every Mile Counts” research from 2008 (reported in 2010) as concluding that trails are “relatively low impact,” economically, for their communities. However, “a more thorough analysis to determine this economic impact” was conducted for one trail, an incomplete trail near Hurley (population 3,458). The study reported “that about 10.5% of the trail users were non-local. Non-local users … averaged $202.35/trail visit versus an expenditure of only $5.19/trail visit for local users … the economic impact would be about $2 million which would support about 40 FTE (Full Time Equivalent) jobs within the community.” That incomplete trail provides a substantial economic benefit for a small town — hardly “low impact,” as claimed by Bill Branson. See https://parks.ny.gov/recreation/trails/documents/StatewideTrailsPlan/StatewideTrailsPlanAppendixC.pdf.

In his Jan. 7 ADE commentary, Branson wrote, “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.”

On Feb. 4, Branson wrote, “as the University of Georgia study demonstrated, 96% of those people were local. In other words, while the shops may ultimately be busy, they are largely busy with people from the next county over, not from out-of-state visitors who are really new to the economic scene of Damascus where the trail is located.”

The Bowker, Bergstrom & Gill study on the Virginia Creeper Trail reported, “An estimated 106,000 people used the trail during the year studied, a very large figure relative to the size of local towns. Aggregate net economic value of the VCT to users was estimated at $2.3 million to $3.9 million. … VCT tourists spend about $1.2 million yearly directly in the two-county community around the trail. This tourist spending in the local economy generates about $1.6 million in total economic activity, which supports 27 jobs and $610,000 in labor earnings. … (T)he trail is a highly valuable asset both to users of the trail and to people in the local community, who benefit economically from tourist expenditures.

“Forty-seven percent of trail users were local (living within 25 miles of VCT). … Overnight, non-local users account for five times the economic impact of other trail users, but they make a small proportion (10%) of trips on the trail.” See https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/ja/ja_bowker008.pdf, https://headwaterseconomics.org/trail/12-virginia-creeper-rail-trail, https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/ja/ja_bowker008.pdf, https://headwaterseconomics.org/trail/12-virginia-creeper-rail-trail/).

Branson fundamentally misrepresented the study’s findings — repeatedly. Also, the research for this study was conducted in 2003, and it was reported in 2007, not in 2016 as one might infer from Branson’s garbled citation. As Michael Wright of Damascus, Virginia, recently wrote to the ADE, “For Mr. Branson to say that the VCT has had ‘MINIMAL incremental economic impact’ is false, misleading and self-serving.”

Bill Branson has also explicitly and repeatedly misrepresented the state’s 1996 unit management plan for the corridor. These repeated misrepresentations should raise serious questions about his credibility.

Branson evasions and unreasonable demands

The Tri-Lakes region has endured two decades of disappointment with ASR and has been harmed economically by ASR obstruction. Bill Branson has evaded public discussion of ASR’s underutilization of restored rail infrastructure to Big Moose, ASR’s weak finances, the lack of evidence of ASR’s viability north of Big Moose, potential long-term costs to taxpayers, serious environmental concerns, and ASR’s inability to boost the Tri-Lakes economy — past or future.

The longest tourist train in the nation is 67.5 miles. The state generously proposed extending ASR from its current 62.6 miles (Utica to Big Moose) to 107 miles (Utica to Tupper Lake) — offering more than 72% of the state-owned corridor to ASR. Bill Branson unreasonably demanded all 119 miles of the state-owned corridor to extend ASR operations to 140 miles (Utica to Lake Placid). He has demonstrated that he is an unfit partner for a risky state-funded enterprise with a multi-million-dollar startup cost — a monumental boondoggle in the making.

Gov. Cuomo, based on the above evidence, one can reasonably conclude that Bill Branson is not a responsible person with whom New York state can do business. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad doesn’t deserve access to another mile of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. A rail trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake will serve the region well at predictable cost. Next, extend the rail trail south from Tupper Lake to Thendara/Old Forge, and end the state boondoggle of extending ASR service to Big Moose only to sit unused for most of the year. Leave ASR to wheeze along from Utica to Thendara/Old Forge. Finally, the rail trail from the Tri-Lakes to Old Forge will be a spectacular attraction that will serve the region far better than ASR might ever dream!

— 

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

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